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The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949

The Bishops Shoot a Godwit

page 40

The Bishops Shoot a Godwit

The waves broke on the bar in snowy turmoil, but the incoming tide shouldered the headland without violence, and the sea ran to the horizon like a blue banner swaying in the wind. The men on the two or three launches between the harbour mouth and the bar were continually pulling in their lines, re-baiting them and throwing out again, but nobody seemed to be catching any fish. From the direction of Tern Island beyond the horizon, a flight of godwits, dark and rapid in the distance, sped towards the launches and the fishermen on the headland, then wheeled along the line of breakers to the north.

Mr Bishop turned to his son. "There you are, Lex! "he said." There are the godwits.

Among the other fishermen on the rocky ledge, Mr Bishop was as conspicuous as the boy was insignificant. He sat at the extreme point of the headland—the best position, for he had come down before slack water to be sure of capturing it. His long white skinny legs, red with sunburn at the knee-joints, his new panama hat, his insufficiently ragged "old coat" were in themselves enough to single him out, and his hunched shoulders and the rigidity of his posture facing the open sea were a warning to trespassers against his isolation. Though his mood was amiable, any casual beggar of bait would have been intimidated by the unalterable severity of his features which years of teaching dull history to stupid small boys had frozen to the appearance of marble. It was his close-cropped hair, long skull, straight-lined face and thin though sensitive mouth as much as his profession that made his acquaintances regard him as a man born out of his age, some survivor of the persecutions in Holland or the war against King Charles. People who observed the perpetual blinking of his weak eyes behind his rimless spectacles received a distinct shock, as if this ordinary human misfortune were some unworthy secret. As a concession to his fellow-men, for he was aware of his remoteness and at times regretted it, Mr Bishop smoked a pipe, making, however, the mistake of using a large and so rank a cherrywood that the effect was at once repellent and absurd. When he filled it, he seemed to be packing a cabin-trunk for a long voyage.

"There you are, Lex!" he said. "There are the godwits."

"If I had my gun here some might fly over," the boy suggested. "Shall I fetch it, dad?" He peered at his father eagerly and nervously through his horn-rimmed glasses.

That wouldn't be any use, Lex. They can see us here and they won't come near."

"Won't they see us then tomorrow? Shall we have to hide?"

"We dig a trench in a shell-bank, Olsen tells me," Mr Bishop answered. "It will be quite a new experience." He spoke in an ironical tone, conveying the impression that new experiences, even if one welcomed them, were somehow childish and trivial. The boy's face contorted as he worked up courage to say what was in his mind. When he spoke he stuttered slightly. "M-mother says it's really cruel to shoot them."

Mr Bishop winced, and then his face grew stern and bony-looking. "You must learn to be more manly, Lex," he admonished. "I explained to you when I gave you the gun that you must never use it unless shooting for food. The godwits are for the pot. In any case, we are in Rome now, and must do as the Romans do."

Nothing but sermons ever since dad had thought of buying him the gun, Lex thought bitterly. Not to point it at people (as if he would), not to carry it through a fence, not to shoot singing birds, not to boast about it to other boys because he was legally too young to own it, not to do this, not to do that! He stared sulkily at the sea.

It really was a shame to shoot the godwits, Mr Bishop reflected. Marvellous voyagers! They flew all the long ocean from Siberia and then, when they had fattened on the New Zealand beaches, the great slaughter began. Shooting them from motor-cars on Ninety Mile Beach! He rather hoped that tomorrow's expedition would be a failure. But then—life was cruel, he consoled himself. Man was a hunting animal. He imagined the morning light and the clean bark of the guns and felt contented. Lex would buck up in time.

Mr Bishop lit his enormous pipe as if he were officiating at an auto-da-fe. Feeling the knock and strain of his line as the sinker shifted or a green swell rolled glassily by, he felt happy. He watched the dance of the water and the clouds rearing their pure architecture in the sky. It pleased him to see the tiny mussels clustering as thickly as sunflower seeds at his feet and the bigger mussels nearer the waterline. The seaweed, reddish in the green water at the rock's edge, swayed with a lovely abandon, an eternal ballet of the ocean.

Seeking to draw his son into his reverie, Mr Bishop saw that once again, because he liked to pretend the bumping of his sinker on the sea floor was the bite of a snapper, the boy had hauled in his line to rebait and had the cord badly tangled. He was plucking at it despairingly not daring to ask for assistance. As he was about to go to the rescue, Mr Bishop felt a tug on his own line. He sprang to his feet, poised himself, struck as the fish bit again, and methodically drew in the bucking line. The snapper gleamed palely in the deep water and shone copper, rose and silver as he pulled it flapping up the rocks.

"A beauty!" exclaimed Olsen beside him. "Good for you, Mr Bishop!"

"Yes, Olsen," agreed Mr Bishop with judicious page 41 enthusiasm, "a nice fish. The first today." And no one else at the heads had landed a snapper that tide, he thought triumphantly. "And what about those godwits, eh? Do we shoot tomorrow?"

"Aye." Watched by the boy, Olsen was freeing the snapper from Mr Bishop's hook, and grunted assent without looking up. "I came to tell you, Mr Bishop. We'll get away early if it suits you." He threw the fish with a splash into a pool in the ledge.

"Capital!" said Mr Bishop heartily. "You set the time and we'll be ready. I'll bring the boy along, too. He has a new shotgun."

"So you got a new gun, eh?" Olsen said to the boy. "You got your line in a bit of a mess, too. We'll soon fix that."

He was a big man, but his fingers moved deftly among the cord. He like helping the youngster, for he was very sorry for him, so shy and helpless. He was fond of Mr Bishop, too, respecting him as a gentleman and a man of culture. A Swede by birth, with big, coarse, sunburned features, Olsen had spent his whole life with boats and the sea. Some mystery, which he himself had almost forgotten, lay in his past; whether it was drink or a woman or an accident at sea for which he had been held responsible nobody knew. He was Olsen the boatman. An authority on tides and weather, fish and birds, the vagaries of his engine and the lunacies of trippers, he led an idyllic sort of existence, hiring himself and his launch to visitors, catching a few fish for the local market and acting as carrier for settlers on the upper reaches of the harbour. Like the sluggish tides that stole over the mudflats and crept about the green piles of the jetties, he was never exactly idle, but he was never in a hurry. Mr Bishop found his insistent helpfulness on fishing expeditions somewhat trying, but tolerated it because it made him feel rather like a local squire.

Lex, who had been watching the fish gasping and flapping in the pool, came back when his line had been baited and thrown out again and took it from Olsen's huge red hand with a look of gratitude.

"All right, then, Mr Bishop. Six o'clock I'll call for you," said Olsen as he strode away.

They could hear the launch chug-chugging in the morning mist long before they could see it. Olsen made tea for them on his primus, and when they came up again the harbour was a wheatfield of golden light. It was low water and the mudflats were gleaming. A solitary gull, burnished by the sun, looked like a bird out of a legend. The steel of the guns was cold to touch, but there was warmth in the early rays on their faces and the backs of their hands.

"A wonderful day for it, Mr Bishop," said Olsen.

His passenger, smoking his pipe with keen relish in the world of gold and crystal, nodded gravely. Lex was preoccupied watching a ragged youth whom Olsen had brought with him fingering his small-bore with an expression of mingled envy and contempt.

"Never seen anything like that before, have you, Dick?" Olsen drawled.

"I like the big gun," the youth answered. "Won't do much good with that!"

Lex leaned over the side and trailed his fingers in the water. It was surprisingly warm.

Both he and his father were bewildered when Olsen, apparently in the middle of nowhere of the waters, switched off his engine and let go the anchor.

"We take the dinghy here and row to the shell-bank," the boatman explained. "Dick will row it back and pick us up when we're ready. Those birds won't come near us if there's anything queer."

The oars dipped and splashed, spilling bright drops. The shell-bank, a mass of millions of cockles, showed tawny across the water, and when the men landed the cream and golden shells crackled under their feet. It was a tiny island of living cockles and empty shells, sloping palely away under the shallow water as far as the eye could see. Olsen took a shovel and scooped three dug-outs, the shells scratching unpleasantly on the steel as he worked. Dick, rowing back to the launch lost in the mist, was already a long way off. As the ripples lapped their little island, Lex looked apprehensively towards the harbour mouth. What if a big wave came? What would they do when the tide rose? Suppose the ragged boy went to sleep and failed to come to rescue them?

"Well, Olsen, if the launch sinks we'll have a long swim home," said Mr Bishop jocosely. He, too, had felt that they were marooned. How quiet it was! The shell-bank, the green shallows, and the harbour fading into the fog, all absolutely silent except when a shell rattled in a retreating wavelet.

"No need to worry about that," the Swede re-assured him, and Mr Bishop wished he had not spoken.

They heard guns in the distance.

"Aye!" said the Swede. "They're shooting along the beach, Mr Bishop. That'll bring the birds into the harbour. We'd better take cover."

Water had seeped into the hollows he had scooped, and it took an effort of will to lie down, fully clothed, among the wet shells. At water-level the harbour seemed to be brimming over, already engulfing the islet. With a shock of terror Lex saw a dogfish swimming a few feet away from him. But his fright was soon lost in sheer wonder at a sight which to both men as well as the boy seemed like some miraculous revelation. It was a huge snapper, so big that the fin on its back jutted out of the water like a sail, feeding on the cockles. They could see it flurry the shells about and then bob upwards while they imagined the hard jaws crackling the shell-fish like a nut-cracker page 42 a nut. Over the pale shells its body was rose-coloured, and the fin above the surface, lilac spotted with green in the sunlight, had the irri-descence of a butterfly's wing. It swam away with a calm grace, and a shoal of herring rattled the green surface of the shallows with a rush as if hail had fallen.

"We could have shot it," Lex suggested, playing the man.

Peering at him through his spectacles over the rampart of shells, Mr Bishop said icily, "We would have frightened the godwits." He was feeling damp and cramped and undignified, and the fact that the boy was shivering and blue with cold increased his irritation.

"Look!" said Olsen softly. "Here they are!"

The godwits, perhaps fifty in the flock, were flying directly towards them in a swift dark phalanx from the sea. The mist, Mr Bishop realized in a flash, had cleared. The surf, breaking creamily on the bar beyond the protecting headland, looked mountainously tall. He thought of one calm evening of early summer, years ago, when he had first seen the birds coming in from Siberia, a great constellation of them with their wings beating out a thin, urgent melody in the darkening air.

As the godwits saw the men, they wheeled sharply overhead, and the guns shouted together. One bird, as if of its own swift intent, plunged into the sea like a diver from the high board.

Olsen waded out to retrieve it. "The boy shot it!" he laughed as he came back, dangling the limp bundle. "And a good shot, too, boy!"

"Yes, you shot it, Lex," Mr Bishop said. Lex was biting his lips and there were tears in his eyes.

"But I didn't," he cried. "I didn't!"

"Course you did," Olsen encouraged him. "I saw the one you aimed at."

Lex struggled with his conscience and his desire to please his father and the big Swede. "They came so swiftly," he burst out. "The way they turned. It was too quick. I didn't shoot." He looked down at the shiny blue steel of the gun his father had given him.

No more birds came over, and soon it was time to go home. By the time they had reached the launch the tide had covered the shell-bank, and unbroken water stretched to the grey-green shore. Not too depressed, for at least he had been out godwit shooting, Lex sat in silence while the launch chugged home. He was hungry and looked forward to breakfast. Mr Bishop smoked his pipe, watched the water going by, and gave an occasional nod or grunt as Olsen apologized for the poor bag and recalled fabulous successes in former expeditions.

"Well, at least you got one, Mr Bishop," said the Swede, handing him the bird when they reached the jetty.

"Damn him!" thought the schoolmaster with a surge of sympathy for his son. "He knows very well he shot it himself."

Douglas Stewart,

Sydney Australia