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On the deepest dive, at his limit, Abel was almost at the end of his breath when he felt a rush in the water behind him. It felt like something big, like his mother passing. But at the corner of his eye he saw a blue shadow that blocked out the sun. He whirled around to see a huge mouth and an eye the size of a golfball coming at him. The mouth opened. He saw massive pegs of teeth as it came on in a terrible rush. Abel screamed in his snorkel and pushed hard off the bottom but the big blue shadow suddenly had him by the hand. The abalone he was holding came tearing out of his fingers. Abel thought he was about to die. He felt pain shoot up his arm. A vast flat tail blurred across his body. And then it was gone.

Abel shot to the surface and burst into the fresh air with a shriek. He wheeled around, looking for danger, waiting for another rush from the lurking shadow. His whole body quaked and trembled. He looked at his hand; a tiny thread of blood curled into the water. It was only a scratch. His mother came slowly upward with her bag full. She gave him the thumbs up.

'Get in the boat!' he shouted when she surfaced. 'There's something down there!'

She grabbed him by the arm and squeezed. 'It's okay, love.'

'Mum, it nearly got me!'

'Close call, eh?' she said with a smile.

'Look, it took skin off my fingers!'

'Look down now.'

'Let's get to the boat. Please!'

'Just look down,' said his mother.

Reluctantly he stuck the snorkel back in his mouth and put his head under. Near the bottom, in the mist left from their abalone gathering, a huge blue shadow twitched and quivered. There it was, not a shark, but the biggest fish he had ever seen. It was gigantic. It had fins like ping pong paddles. Its tail was a blue-green rudder. It looked as big as a horse.

'Come down,' said his mother. 'Let's look at him.'

'I--I thought it was a shark.'

'He sure took you by surprise,' she said, laughing. 'That's a blue groper. Biggest I've ever seen.'

Abel and his mother slid down into the deep again and saw the fish hovering then turning, eyeing them cautiously as they came. It twitched a little and edged along in front of them to keep its distance. The big gills fanned. All its armoured scales rippled in lines of green and black blending into the dizziest blue. The groper moved without the slightest effort. It was magnificent; the most beautiful thing Abel had ever seen.

After a few moments his mother eased forward with an abalone in one outstretched hand. The groper watched her. It turned away for a moment, afraid, and then came round in a circle. Abel couldn't hold his breath much longer but he didn't want to miss anything so he hung there above his mother and the fish with his lungs nearly bursting.

The groper arched back. The mosaic of its scales shone in the morning sun. His mother got close enough to touch the fish with the meat of the abalone. The fish trembled in the water and then froze for a moment as though getting ready to flee. She ran the shellmeat along its fat bottom lip and let go. The fish powered forward, chomped the abalone and hurtled off into a dark, deep hole.

The pair of them climbed into the boat laughing. They piled their catch into the crate and pressed towels against their glowing faces.

'I can't believe it,' said Abel. 'It's big enough to eat your arm off.'

'He must be old to grow that big,' said his mother as she pulled on the starter rope.

'He's so blue.'

'And smart,' she said. ' He knew what he was doing. We're lucky, you know, lucky to see such a thing.'

They skimmed back around into the bay across the slick green water toward the jetty and the shack that was their home.

Abel Jackson had lived by the sea here at Longboat Bay ever since he could remember. His whole life was the sea and the bush. Every day was special, his mother always told him this, but it all became much more precious the day he first shook hands with old Blueback.

 

Published by Picador 1997. Reproduced with permission of the author.

 
 

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