A hundred years ago this town burnt down. Now there’s a dairy and a pub, stumps in the bay where a wharf used to stand, and a little wooden church where Old Nick keeps his traps. He told me rats taste good with beans.
Mum says stay away from that cracker. But Old Nick just washed up here one day, same as us, same as all things in the mangroves: jandals, doll parts, rubber gloves. I hang around the mangroves waiting for Big Daddy. “He isn’t washing up here,” Mum says. “How do you know?” I shout at her. All she does is sit on the sofa in a dream.
When I told her about Old Nick’s rat stew she mumbled, “Eye of newt.”
“What’s that?” There were toast crumbs down her front, I brushed them off. “Mum?”
“Well, he says he’s eaten kingfisher roasted with taters and carrots.”
I don’t want to eat kingfisher though sometimes I get so hungry, maybe I could? We eat bread and tins of spaghetti off small plates. I steal fruit – sweet bright oranges. Nasturtiums are out along the roadside, you can eat those. Most everything else has dried up. Dead flax spears clack in the wind. The toetoe are frizzled white, they line the road like ghost-heads on spikes.
“What else you eaten?” I asked Old Nick when he walked past the mangroves.
“Dog,” he laughed, showing off three brown teeth.
“How’d you chew dog?”
“Cook it slow,” he replied. “Long time, low heat. Meat melts off the bones like whipped cream.”
Whipped cream! My stomach growled. “If you ate my dog, I’d kill you. I’d put Mum’s pills in your tea, when you fell asleep I’d slit your throat.”
“You know about slitting throats?”
“Heard about it,” I shrugged. “Seen Big Daddy snap chooks necks. Helped him pluck them, too.”
Old Nick clomped off sniggering.
Back before we washed up here, we had two dogs, a tribe of chooks and a bunny.
Water began welling out of the crab holes in the mud. As I watched, a memory grew. I saw Big Daddy’s arms. Me curled into them. “Big Daddy,” I whispered. “I’m hungry.”
The tide slid in like a mirror. I saw a kingfisher’s white front reflected in the water, it was hunched on a branch. Ripples pushed against my ankles. I sank into the rabbit-soft mud, the water rising past my knees.
A green streak: the diving kingfisher water-bursting with a sprat in its beak. A blur of wingbeats and it darted out of sight.
I turned to see Old Nick holding a live chook upside down. “Got sick of this one gabbling round. Want it?”
I was out of the water in a flash, snatched the chook and ran. “Thank you,” I called over my shoulder. Old Nick’s mouth was moving, but my heart beat so hard I couldn’t hear the words. He waved, his arm’s shadow swept down the road and curved around my feet. Big Daddy? I breathed.