• The Sapling

THE SAMPLING: Answering to the Caul


Ted Dawe's latest novel was released in paperback format last spring – and now, you can get your hands on it in ebook form, for teen and adult readers everywhere. To whet your appetite, here's an extract from pages 70–74 of the book, describing protagonist Andrei's near-death experience at sea...


The water in late afternoon was surprisingly warm, almost inviting. The sun had lost its sting and for once there was no wind blowing. Before long it was quite clear that there was no way I was going to emerge from this experience with dry shorts. I hadn’t worn togs, just the bottom half of my school uniform: grey drill shorts and Roman sandals.


After a while we pulled in the net to check out why it had become so heavy. I was hoping to see it teeming with fish, but I was disappointed. There were a few herrings, some crabs and a couple of baby flounder, but most of the weight came from something that looked like a dead baby. It was grey and slimy with a mass of tangled string cutting into its slippery skin.


I jumped up and backed away, it was all I could do to stifle a scream. The two men looked at me and came over immediately. Uncle Pita crouched down and began to unravel it from the netting and seaweed. Once he’d freed it, he beckoned me over. I squatted beside him watching him hack at the thick nylon strings with his sheath knife. At last he freed it and unrolled its thick leathery mass. It was flat and square like a door mat, but with a long sharp tail. He flicked it over, one side deep grey, the colour of the sand, the other, gleaming white.


It was flat and square like a door mat, but with a long sharp tail. He flicked it over, one side deep grey, the colour of the sand, the other, gleaming white.

I backed away, still terrified.


‘It’s just a stingray,’ Dad said, already getting exasperated.


Pita placed it on the wet sand again and pushed down firmly on its mid-section. I could see something was happening. A moment later a tiny stingray spilled out from an opening near the tail. Then another. Before long there were five of these tiny stingrays lined up on the wet sand.

‘It was a mother,’ Pita said, ‘all ready to drop its litter when it ran into someone who had other plans.’


He could see my anxiety and put his hand on my shoulder.


‘Come on Andrei, this is what happens at sea. It’s just how things are. Natural, y’know.’


I stood there, looking at the perfect little creatures lying on the wet sand next to their mother.


‘Now go off and get the sack, we need to get started again or we’ll be going home with nothing.’


After this my father decided that I would help Pita on the deep end. He said that he could manage the shore end by himself. I knew that this was some sort of test, so I didn’t make a fuss but walked out with Pita into the deep water. Now that I was used to the temperature of the sea, and resigned to getting wet from head to toe, it was a bit easier. Unlike my father, Pita didn’t continually criticise and did most of the hauling himself. It was enough for him that I was out in the deep water alongside him.

The next time we took the net in we had four decent-sized flounder and a bright-red gurnard with blue fins, which grunted as I plucked it from the webbing. As it was getting darker the fish were beginning to come in greater numbers.


I knew that this was some sort of test, so I didn’t make a fuss but walked out with Pita into the deep water. Now that I was used to the temperature of the sea, and resigned to getting wet from head to toe, it was a bit easier.

After about thirty minutes something happened to the sea. The waves began to pick up and the undertow sucked at my legs.


‘Tide’s turning,’ said Pita, noting my alarm. ‘It’ll settle soon’.


But it didn’t. My father struggled to haul the in the net so Pita left me on the outside pole alone while he went to shore to help. As soon as he had gone all my courage drained away, I felt so alone. There was nothing now between me and the ocean. The pull of the tide became fierce and it was all I could do to keep my footing. I yelled something to the other two back on shore but my voice was snatched away and stifled in the anger of the waves. The two men had their backs to me now, bracing against the pole as they tried to make their way up to the dry sand. A moment later my feet were snatched away as my legs were sucked strongly towards the deep water again. I tried to cry out, but no sound came – it was all I could do to hold on. The other two seemed to be making no progress and the undertow was now so strong that it ripped off one of my sandals. I could feel the ocean’s hands, grasping at my legs.


How much longer could I hold on? I dared not look behind me, where the immensity of the Tasman Sea, now dark-grey and choppy, was terrifying. Between the breakers I caught a glimpse of the two shore-side haulers – they’d finally made it to where the sea was only knee-deep. They leaned over so far that every now and then they were able to touch the bottom with their free hand to steady themselves.


The pole I was holding was slippery and I had to constantly renew my grip. Finally, I managed to thrust my arm through the gap so that the pole was wedged in my armpit. By now, I was spending more time below the surface than above it. All I could do was to take the biggest breath and then just hold on. After each wave surged past, I struggled to catch a quick gasp before my head was once again plunged into the frothy water. Each baptism was longer than the last. I knew it was hopeless. Then the wave came that drove me straight to the bottom. I could feel its watery hands pressing down on my back and grinding my face into the sand. My final breath bubbled from my mouth, evidence of a desperate scream. Then blackness.


After each wave surged past, I struggled to catch a quick gasp before my head was once again plunged into the frothy water. Each baptism was longer than the last. I knew it was hopeless.

A moment – or perhaps a year – later, there was shouting. My clothes were being stretched and my arms roughly seized. I was dragged up the beach to the wet zone where I spluttered until I vomited. My father was shouting and angry while Pita leaned me over his knee while my forehead rested on the sand. Water kept coming out of my mouth and nose, slower now, some of it quite warm. My body began to shake and I cried uncontrollably. Pita stroked my back while my father paced up and down, clearly embarrassed by my display.


The men went back to have a few last hauls, hoping to fatten the catch. I sat alone on the wet zone watching the waves dancing before me, flecking the horizon with their angry peaks. I had cheated the ocean of its catch, I knew that. Somewhere in my emerging consciousness I resolved that I would never give it another chance.


Extracted with permission from Answering to the Caul by Ted Dawe, published by Mangakino University Press.

Answering to The Caul

by Ted Dawe Published by Mangakino University Press

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