When the Great Crabs come frothing from the ocean- angry and spitting - it’s Meeko who leaps upon them, shoving them into the rusted tin bucket.
He’s young though. Unpractised.
The Crabs seem to know this and their claws flash in the early morning light to tear at the fingers that grip their wet bodies. One of them nips triumphantly at a bit of his skin drawing blood and Meeko throws the thing into the bucket, spitting and swearing. He wishes there was someone to see him. They’d think he was nearly a man what with the easy swearing and the heavy bucket of wriggling Great Crabs.
Meeko adjusts the bucket, wincing as the metal handle digs into his palm. He swears again just to see how it sounds out there on the desolate beach, and then he’s up, padding along the grey shoreline all the way to the bush trail that leads home.
Meeko ploughs up the trail, dragging his feet so that the sand clings to his brown soles. Above him, the flowering colours of the suns rising face licks across the sky. An eggy mess of pink and yellow and orange. Meeko loves that sky. But Mamma thinks it’s too tricky- always changing colours, always changing faces. A bruising storm one day, a yawning pale belly the next. Meeko reaches out a hand to the sky anyway, pretends to peel those orange streaks right off the sky and places them on his tongue. He smiles at the taste, at the syrupy warmness of it sliding down his throat.
Real food would be good though. Meeko frowns peering at the bucket of Great Crabs. But the cooking of the Crabs, the tearing off the armour to get to the soft gleaming meat inside- that’s Pappa’s job. Meeko will only make a mess.
He sticks his tongue out at the seething mass of Crabs then carries them over to the side of the house. It’s a weather-beaten thing, tall and ancient, standing alone on the top of the cliff like some forgotten saint.
Meeko glances inside but the white-washed walls only greet him with silence. He shifts uncomfortably, thinking how long it’s been. Probably been days, but it feels like years. When will they be back?
“Soon, soon,” he sings to himself and he wanders over to the edge of the cliff since there’s no one around to stop him. The ocean crashes below in a mess of grey and blue and white, hurtling against the base of the cliff like it wants to topple it. But Meeko raises his hands above his head, stretches high so that the sky is his crown and spits off the cliff into the water, reminding the ocean who the real king is around here.
But king or not, he’s alone and with the Crab catching and spitting done, Meeko realises there’s nothing left to do but wait. He sits so that his legs dangle off into the endless air and he pulls his thin jumper tighter across his chest and taps his right hand once, twice against his lips for luck and counts and counts the minutes that crawl by.
His eyes squeeze shut for a long time and he’s lost in the strange, dark shapes that swirl behind his lids.
When he finally opens his eyes, the gulls are swooping in circles and the ocean is roaring even higher and there- like an apparition along the shore- there they are.
Meeko’s on his feet in a second, running past the house and the bucket of Crabs, skidding dangerously down the crooked path. There’s a small boulder right at the end of the trail and he tries to leap it over it but misjudges his timing and stumbles over it bashing his knees hard against the rough sand, but he doesn’t care he doesn’t care, he picks himself up and sprints down the damp beach towards those figures.
The Crabs scuttle quickly out of the way. Not even the ocean tries to slow him down with its foaming wet tongue.
“Mamma!” he yells, lifting his arms, waving them like wings. “Pappa!”
His parents are moving slowly, barely touching each other, heads bent low against the salty wind.
Meeko’s close enough now to see their faces. He skids to a stop, trying to calm himself.
Mamma looks up, but her eyes are glazed, dead stars. She says nothing.
“I caught the Crabs this morning,” Meeko says.
She doesn’t curve her lips into one of her soft smiles like he thought she might or ruffle her hand through his mess of dark hair. She brushes past him, as if he’s not even there, and continues down the beach. Pappa watches her go, his jaw like stone and for the first time Meeko notices something pressed against his chest, hidden in the folds of the oversized jacket and bundled up in a grey blanket.
“Is that . . .? Can I see?” Meeko reaches up to touch the small thing but Pappa flinches backwards and Meeko’s hand snaps away holding nothing but air.
“Sorry. I’m sorry. I- You scared me. Here. Take her.” Pappa lifts the small thing from his jacket, tucking it gently into Meeko’s arms. “Don’t move, do you hear? Don’t move, Meeko. I need to get something. I’ll be right back.”
Pappa trudges past too. He’s quicker than Mamma though. He scuffs right past her, going up the trail and leaving her behind.
Meeko shifts his arms to hold the small thing more securely, confusion choking his mind like smoke. What’s wrong with his parents? He thought they’d be happy to be back, happy to show the small thing to Meeko.
Meeko peeks curiously at the mound of flesh in his arms, using a finger to lift the blanket away from her face. He smiles, sunshine spilling in his chest. She’s asleep, eyes squeezed shut and little hands clasped together. No hair. But her ears are exquisite- tiny sea shells tinged the palest of pinks.
“Sister.” The word rushes from his lips like a quiet ocean wave. He leans down, kissing the tip of her nose. She’s not at all warm and squishy like he thought though. A bit pale too. He lifts the blanket over her again, thinking it’s probably just the cold air.
But something- fear- flickers in the dark corners of his mind and he lifts the blanket up again to see her face. Pale, still. So still. He turns his head, bringing his ear down to her mouth to listen for her breath but all he can hear is the drowning pounding of his own blood roaring in his ears. Pulse. There must be a pulse, right? He finds her hand, feels her stiff fingers, doesn’t even know where he’s supposed to feel for a pulse. Sister. Sister?
Pappa’s walking towards him. There’s a box in his hand and a small wooden bowl of salt.
Meeko sees the things, knows what they’re for but he doesn’t quite understand.
“I’m sorry Meeko, I’m sorry.” Pappa’s words are rushed, pouring out too quickly for Meeko to grab onto. “These things happen. The Healer did his best but sometimes these things just happen.”
“It wasn’t meant to happen.”
“Meeko.” Pappa shakes his head, tears sliding down into his beard.
And he can’t help it, Meeko sobs. Only once. A hard, racking cry that makes the dead bundle in his arms shudder.
“We brought her home,” Pappa rasps. “We’ll send her off the right way. Be strong now, Meeko. You knew this might happen. We knew.”
Meeko watches his father drop to his knees, set the small box down on the sand and lift the lid. “Pass her here.”
But Meeko holds her tighter, fingers digging into the rough fabric of the blanket.
“Come now. This is the way. We have to send her off right,” he says again.
Meeko sniffs, wiping at the burning in his eyes. He gets to his knees, ignoring Pappa’s outstretched hands and softly sets his sister down into the box. She fits perfectly.
Pappa closes his eyes for a moment. An eternity. Then he reaches for the bowl, pinching up a few grains of salt and touching it to her frozen lips. Meeko does the same. He looks away when Pappa puts the lid back on.
“What about Mamma?” Meeko asks when Pappa stands, turning to the ocean with the box clutched to his heart.
“She doesn’t want to see. It’s just me and you.” And he holds out a shaking hand.
Meeko takes it. Feeling Pappa shake makes him steady.
Together they wade out into the crashing waves, shivering involuntarily at the biting cold. They stop when the waves are far behind and the water gets to Meeko’s chest and they’re both shivering so bad they can barely speak. Pappa lets go of Meeko’s hand, taps the top of the box once, twice for luck and then places it on the seething surface of the sea.
They watch her go. Meeko wonders how long it will take for her to sink. The sinking’s inevitable, Pappa used to tell him. She’ll drift to the bottom, the weight of the water pressing down on her sea- shell ears. She’ll be swallowing oceans and oceans forever. Maybe the Crabs will find her. There’ll be no armour to stop them from nipping, biting, clawing.
The ocean swells around them, pushing at Meeko’s legs trying to unmoor him and he wobbles, almost swept along with his sister by the strong current. But Pappa’s there, his hand clenches tight around Meeko’s wrist, anchoring him.
They watch the baby go,
the soft sound of her small soul