My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XVI

The Blockade of the Mullet

“Up with a sally and a flash of speed

As if they scorned.”

The rains which came at the New Year flooded all the creeks of the Island. Accumulations of sand usually form beds through which the sweet water slowly mingles with the salt, but with the violence and impetus of a downpour of ten inches during the night, each torrent had cut a channel, through which it raced from the seclusion of the jungle to the free, open sea. Twice in the twenty-four hours the impassive flowing tide subdued the impertinence of each of the brawlers, smothered its gurgling, and forced it back among the ferns and jungle and banana-plants which crowded its banks.

The largest stream at high water was four feet deep. As I prepared to wade across George, the black boy, shouted over his shoulder towards a slowly swaying cloud in the deep pool overhung with foremost flounces of the jungle. The cloud was a shoal of sea mullet. Save for a clear margin of about three feet, the fish filled the pond — an alert, greyish-blue mass edged with cream-coloured sand. There were several hundred fish, all bearing a family resemblance as to size as well as to feature.

It was slack water. The fish were, no doubt, about to move down-stream to the sea, for all headed that way when the disturbing presence of man blocked the passage. A thrill went through the phalanx, and it swayed to the left and then to the right. The movement — spontaneous and mechanical — slightly elongated the formation, and three scouts in single file slid down to reconnoitre, and with a nervous splash as they scented danger, dashed back and blended imperceptibly with the mass.

“We catch plenty big fella mullet!” George exclaimed, as he gleefully splashed the water, and the cloud contracted and shrank back. The stream was about ten feet wide. Our equipment for sport consisted of a tomahawk and a grass-tree spear so frail that any of the mullet could have swum off with it without inconvenience.

Straddling the stream side by side we splashed and “shooed” when the slightest symptom of a sally on the part of the fish was betrayed. A few brave leaders darted down, generally in pairs, and flashed back in fright at our noisy demonstrations, and so the blockade of the mullet began.

While I stood guard shouting and “shooing” and making such commotion as I trusted would convince the fish that the blockading force was ever so much stronger and more truculent than it really was, George began to construct a pre-eminently practical wall. Its design was evolved ages upon ages ago by black students of hydrostatics and fish. George had imbibed the principles of its construction with his mother’s milk. He cut down several saplings, and, screwing the butt ends into the soft sand about a foot apart, interlaced them with branches of mangrove and beach-trailers and swathes of grass. But the tide began to ebb. The pent-up current, strong and rapid, frequently carried portions of the structure away. George had to duck and dive to tie the vines and creepers to the stakes close down to the sandy bottom. Though armfuls of leafage floated to the surface and rolled out to sea, George worked with joyful desperation. Presently the fish began to make determined rushes. Shouting and splashing, tearing down branches, capturing driftwood, diving and gasping, his efforts were unceasing. Understanding the guile of the fish, he sought to make the deeper part of the weir secure, and for an hour or so he laboured in the water with head, hands, and feet. While with deft fingers he weaved creepers and branches to the stakes, his feet beat the surface into surf and surge to the scaring of the fish to the remote limits of their retreat. But the tighter the weir became, the more the pressure was on it. Fast as repairs were made at one spot gaps appeared in another which demanded immediate attention. The quantity of material that our works absorbed was scarcely to be realised. But a double-ended, amphibious black boy can work every-day wonders. Not a single fish had escaped. We had the whole shoal at our mercy, for George had confidently provided against all contingencies.

Buoyant on the bosom of the stream came a good-sized log with raking, shortened limbs. Under its cover the fish sallied forth a hundred strong, strenuous in bravery and resolution. The log swept past me, making a terrible breach in our weir, through which many fish shot. Some leaped high overhead. Two landed on the sand, helplessly flapping and gasping. George occupied the breach, and as he waved his arms and shouted, a four-pounder, leaping high, struck him on the forehead. He sat down emphatically, and another gap was made. As he struggled to his feet the vanquished members of the assaulting party fled to the main host. Honours were with the besieged. Blood oozed from a lump on George’s forehead, there were cruel breaches in the weir, the fish had gained confidence and knowledge of our works, and only two were prisoners.

Now the sallies became frequent. Sometimes the fish came as scouts, more often in battalions, and in the dashes for liberty many were successful. George toiled like a fiend. His repairs looked all right on the surface, but ever and anon considerable flotsam indicated vital gaps. In spite of splashing and “shooing” and the complications of the weir, we had had the mortification of seeing hosts escape.

Then George changed his tactics. Abandoning his faith in the weir, he converted it into what he called, in his enthusiastic excitement, “a bed.” He laid branches of the weir so that the leaves and twigs interlaced and crossed, buttressing the structure with another row of palisades. His theory was that the fish, as the water became shallower, would cease their efforts to wriggle through, and, leaping high, would land on the bed and be easily captured. No preliminary shouting and splashing affected the solidity of that determined array. Mullet knew all about blackfellows’ weirs and their beds. Some slid through. Many leaped, and, curving gracefully in the air, struck the “bed” at such an angle that it offered no more resistance to them than a sheet of damp tissue-paper. They sniggered as they went through it, and splashed wildly to the sea. They were grand fish — undaunted, afraid of no man or his paltry obstacles to liberty, up to every cunning manoeuvre.

Were we to be beaten by a lot of silly, slippery fish in a shallow stream? Never! January’s unsheltered sun played upon my tanned, wet, and shameless back; the salt sweat coursed down my shoulders and dripped from my face. The scrub fowl babbled and chuckled, cockatoos jeered from the topmost branches of giant milkwood trees and nodded with yellow crests grave approval of the deeds of the besieged; fleet white pigeons flew from a banquet of blue fruits to a diet of crude seeds, and not a single one of the canons of the gentle art of fishing but was scandalously violated. It was a coarse and unmanly encounter — the wit, strategy, finesse, and boldness of fish pitted against the empty noise and bluster of inferior man and the flimsiness of his despicable barriers.

In silence and magnificent resolve they came at us. We fought with sticks and all the power of our lungs. Rest was out of the question. The leafy dyke and “bed” stood ever in need of repair; the sallies were continuous and determined. The “bed” was not made for those knightly fish to lie ignobly upon. A single fish would slip down-stream, and, gathering speed and effort, leap with the glitter of heroism in its eyes. One such George caught in his arms. Another slipped through my fingers and struck me on the shoulders, and I bore the mark of the assault for a week. George’s brow was bleeding. Indeed, all his blood was up. His “heroic rage” was at bursting point. We had toiled for two hours and counted but three fish, while as many hundred had battled past our siege works. Quite as many remained, and time, as it generally does, seemed to be in favour of the attacking party.

Was Charles Lamb right when he spoke of “the uncommunicating muteness of fishes”? These beleaguered mullet surely exchanged ideas and acted with deliberation and in concert. All swayed this way or that in accordance, so it seemed, with the will of the front rank. A tremor there was repeated instantly at the rear. When a detachment made a bid for liberty it was in response to a common impulse. When a single individual started on a forlorn hope the others seemed to watch our hostile demonstrations as it leaped — flashing silvery lights from its scales — to prove the unworthiness of weirs and beds, and we, of the ranks of Tuscany, cheered if its deed of derring do was neatly and successfully achieved.

Fish to the number of five having fallen into our clutches, we stood by and watched the rest. Most of them leaped gloriously to liberty. Some ignominiously wriggled. Others remained in the pool, their nerves so shattered by bluster and assault that they had not the melancholy courage to slip away. In his wrath — for blood still oozed from his forehead — George would have exterminated the skulkers, and, checked in his bloodthirstiness, he showered upon them contemptible titles while he cooked two of those we had captured. Wrapped in several folds of banana and “ginger” leaves, and steamed in hot sand, the full flavour of the fish was retained and something of the aroma of the leaves imparted. I was not, therefore, astonished when George, having eaten a three-pounder, finished off my leavings — nothing to boast of, by the way — and proceeded to cook another (for the dog); and Barry, I am bound to say, got fairly liberal pickings. The weather was close, and being satisfied, and, for once, frugal, George cooked the two remaining fish, and swathing them neatly in fresh green leaves, sauntered away, cooing a corroboree of content.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50