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The Pearl Poachers by Monica Kilian
published in Volume 11, Issue 1 on June 28th, 2004

Whenever Jasmine's father came home in the early hours of the morning, moist and smelling of salt, she knew where he'd been.

She would not sleep from the time he left, just before midnight, and lay awake, waiting for the key to scrabble surreptitiously at the door lock.

Sometimes she would get up and meet him in the hallway.

"Hey, why aren't you sleeping, baby," he'd say, startled to find her leaning against the dark wall in her Donald Duck night shirt, her arms crossed as if she were cold, even in the heat of the tropical night.

"Can't sleep when you're gone."

"Poor baby," he'd say and kiss her hair. "Come on, I'll make you some hot chocolate."

And they went into the kitchen and turned on the light by the stove. Jasmine perched on her chair, knees drawn up under her chin, and watched as her father measured out milk before pouring it into an old enamel pot to heat. He believed in making hot chocolate the old-fashioned way.

She always closed her eyes and listened to the clink of the spoon mixing up cocoa powder and sugar in a little milk, churning it into a dark, smooth paste. "Chocolate elixir," he called it, and always showed it to her for approval before pouring hot milk over it.

He never made any for himself. "That's kid's stuff," he'd say, grabbing a beer from the fridge instead. Or, when he had it, a whisky bottle.

When they'd finished their drinks, he'd tuck her into bed, plant a kiss on her cheek. "I won't have to do this much longer, then we can get out of this bloody place, and go back to Sydney, back to real life," he'd say.

"How much longer?" she'd ask.

"A few months, if I'm lucky."

But he never was lucky. The few months invariably led to a few more months, a year, a few more years. And they were still in Broome.

Jasmine's father, never a large man, seemed to shrink with every season, as he waited for his luck to arrive. He had been waiting to get away from Broome ever since Jasmine could remember, which was about one year after her mother died. Her mother's death was expensive, her father told her. Nothing was too good for her, too rare, too exquisite. Even the doctor was imported from America. Hope was a costly business. And that is why they had no money left, only a crippling debt.

Jasmine's father had a collection of well-thumbed picture books from Sydney. In the evenings after he fixed dinner, they would sit together at the low table, looking at the photos that faded more every year.

In the mornings he would drive her to school in his limping car, promising at the end of every year that this was her last at Broome kindergarten, Broome primary school, Broome high school. "Wait till we go to Sydney," he'd say, his face lighting up.

In the beginning, Jasmine got all excited when her father talked about Sydney. "I'm going to Sydney," she'd tell her best friend Gavin every year, as they swung from the monkey bars in the dusty playground.

"Why?" he'd ask.

"It's nicer there. Clean and fresh and cool. Not stinking hot and mucky like here. You can live there properly. That's what my Dad says."

"Yeah?" Gavin said, making dust clouds by letting his toes swing though the fine orange sand. "So why are you still here?"

"My Dad needs to get some more money."

As soon as she reached high school, Jasmine stopped talking about Sydney, and she no longer sat with her father in the evenings, looking at the fading pictures. Instead, she'd sneak out, to be with Gavin in the long Broome nights.

Years later, Jasmine no longer got up to greet her father in the dark hallway, even when she was wide awake.

And he no longer made hot chocolate for her, but went straight to the whisky bottle.

Sometimes she'd find him in the mornings, slumped in his armchair in the living room, snoring loud enough to wake the dead. Even, occasionally, himself.

"Dad," she'd say, yanking him by the shoulders. "Time to go to bed." It took considerable effort to get him to move, even when sunlight was already flooding the room. Sometimes she had to prop open his eye lids, try to shock him with the light.

And then he'd groan and stumble towards his bed, supporting his lean frame on her.

When he first started getting drunk on whisky, two years ago, she was scared, worried he'd die and leave her all alone. But then she found that, no matter how awful he looked and smelled, he always got back up on his feet after taking a day or two to sober up. And when the pearling season started, he'd slink off again just before midnight and re-appear the next day in the living room, reeking of sweat, sea, and alcohol.

But now she didn't mind these episodes at all: they made life easier for her. She no longer had to sneak out in the evenings to meet Gavin down at the abandoned pearler's jetty, where they'd sit, arms entwined, sharing lemonade and kisses, as they listened to the sounds of the mangroves and the beating of their hearts. And on the weekends she could go down to the port jetty where her father's dinghy was tied up to a buoy, and spend the day on the water without having to tell anyone why, and where, and when she'd be back.

The dinghy plowed through the turquoise waters at full throttle, heading towards the dark blue beyond the sandbanks. It wasn't the safest route for a small boat, but it was the quickest.

Jasmine sat at the transom, clutching the throttle of the outboard motor, keeping course with a firm hand. She knew exactly where to go. She had memorized the location the first time she'd seen it a couple of years ago, when her father had taken her out in that same dinghy and sworn her to secrecy.

"This is our ticket out of here," he said, slowing down as they rounded a rocky outcrop with a lone eucalyptus tree, its branches blackened by a long-ago fire.

She looked around. They were far from Broome, in a remote bay surrounded by craggy orange rocks and low scrub the colour of sage. At the very edge of the water was a small stand of mangroves, their roots edging into the sea, like stilts, trying to conquer new land.

"What's this?" she asked, unimpressed.

Her father turned off the engine and lifted it out of the water, letting the boat drift in the silence.

"Look." He pointed into the water.

She stared down. At first, all she saw were indistinct, dark shapes, like boxes with trailing seaweed.

She reached towards them, but her father stopped her. "You never know when a crocodile could come along in these waters," he said.

Her father lowered a paddle into the water instead, and pulled up part of a rope. The rope spanned along the water, and when he lifted it to the surface, Jasmine saw a wire cage dangling from it, holding large and crusty grey shells.

"Pearl oysters," her father said, his face aglow with satisfaction.

Jasmine peered into the water and saw the outlines of several more cages attached to the rope.

"Where do they come from?"

"I buy them from Jimmy. No one you know. With some luck," her father said, "we'll have enough pearls to get out of this stinking place." And again he swore her to secrecy.

And she had kept the secret, telling no one about the rows of oyster cages suspended from a rope in a remote, inaccessible bay.

Jasmine slowed the engine, as she scanned the coastline, looking for the familiar charred tree. There it was, standing sentinel over the entrance to the secret bay, its branches stiff and black against a sky white with sunlight.

She steered into the bay and cut the engine, letting the boat drift until she was near enough to the rope to catch it with the paddle. She pulled at the rope until the first oyster cage appeared, clanking against the side of the boat.

She hauled up the cage and cut through the wire mesh with pliers. The wire was soft and pliable, and she often wondered why her father hadn't chosen a sturdier one to protect the shells. She freed the oysters one by one, careful not to cut her fingers on their rough shells, and stowed them in a plastic tub filled with seawater.

There were six cages, she knew. But she also knew that only two cages contained oysters. The rest still bore the marks from her last visit: ripped meshing that streamed forlornly in the current.

But as she was about to haul in the second cage, a shadow, long and swift, crossed underneath the rope.

Her breath caught in a suppressed cry, and she threw herself onto the bottom of the boat, next to the oyster box. She lay flat, her heart pounding. She was sure the thin aluminium was reverberating with each heart beat. Could he hear it through the water? Would he know she was inside the boat?

She forced herself to calm her breathing, lying motionless while the boat drifted towards the shore. It seemed to take forever before she felt the hard roots of the mangroves scraping the underside of the dinghy. Even then she lay still, the midday sun searing through her clothes.

All was silent.

Finally she got up the nerve to right herself and push away from the stems and roots. As soon as the boat cleared the mangroves, she lowered the engine and roared off towards the open ocean.

As she dropped the oysters overboard, one by one, and watched them drift towards the bottom of the sea, she wondered how many more times she had to drive the boat to the secret bay and steal her father's pearl oysters, his ticket home.

"I can't believe it!" Jasmine's father made to hit the table with his fist, but stopped just short of contact. His fist remained suspended in the air, fingers curled so tightly they were turning white. "There's only one cage left. Everything else is gone!" His voice caught with anguish, and Jasmine felt a catch in her heart.

"It's probably a crocodile," she said. "Maybe you just picked the wrong spot."

But her father shook his head. "Nah. It's no bloody crocodile. It's Jimmy. I know it is."

Jimmy worked for a pearling company. During one his drinking sessions, her father had let slip that Jimmy supplied him with stolen pearl oysters, freshly seeded by the company's technician. He didn't take many oysters, not enough to arouse suspicion. And with no guarantee that there were pearls forming inside. In fact, in the five years Jasmine's father had tried to raise pearls from the stolen creatures, he had only found about a dozen that were of good enough quality to fetch a decent price. Half the oysters inevitably died, and most of the survivors were barren. The few that did grow pearls produced dull blobs of little value. Not nearly enough to pay her father's debts.

"Double-crossing son of a bitch," her father said, pouring himself another shot of whisky. He stared through the window, seeing nothing but his rage.

Jasmine looked at him, thought she saw tears brimming in his eyes. Tears of anger? Of disappointment? Whatever their cause, she felt responsible. This surprised her, she'd never felt anything but elated each time she managed to scupper his dream of moving away from Broome, away from the place she loved. Away from Gavin.

But perhaps now it was time for her to stop. Let him grow his oysters, let him find enough pearls to go back to Sydney. By the time he'd be ready to leave, she would be seventeen. Old enough to stay here on her own, with Gavin.

She decided she would let her father go home.

"Daddy," she said and stopped. She hadn't called him "Daddy" in a long time.

"Yes, baby," he said automatically. He had never stopped calling her "baby."

"I really think you should move the oysters somewhere else."

"No need to, baby. I know it's Jimmy." His mouth tightened.

"Please, Dad."

Her father grunted and drained his glass.

Jasmine's father dragged the dinghy onto the narrow beach behind the mangroves of the secret bay. He tied it to a branch, leaving enough rope for the boat to rise and fall with the tide.

A week ago, Jimmy had delivered a new batch of stolen pearl oysters. And from experience, Jasmine's father knew that about one week after delivery, his oysters were gone.

Well, he'd put a stop to that today.

Jasmine's father took a gun out of the boat and stepped into the water, making his way to a fat mangrove root where he planned to sit and wait. For Jimmy.

It was turning into a long day of waiting. He had arrived early in the morning, with the tide. He had watched the tide go out, and now he sat on dry land as he waited for it to flood back and turn the beach into soft, silky mud.

When the tide started to return, its waves lapping insistently at the roots of the mangroves, he thought he heard something.

"Jimmy, you bastard," he muttered to himself, straining to hear the roar of an engine. He waded into the water, thigh-high now, his eyes scanning the horizon, his hands cradling the gun.

A long shadow moved across the shallows, graceful and silent. He didn't see it.

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