THOSE FIRST WEEKS Sally walked the beach, it went unread. She saw only a scallop of yellow sand edged with dark rock. Although her eyes were directed downwards, ahead of her feet and, occasionally, out to the horizon, her gaze was still inwards, picking over the detritus of her old life. The shift south had not brought her the happiness she had imagined. Anonymity, a fresh start, was a relief – but also rather lonely. The other residents waved or said good morning as they passed. But Sally, with her Queensland number plates and sun-ravaged skin, was not one of them. She saw the locals stopping to chat to one another, laughing and smiling and visiting each other’s houses in the evenings, carrying wine or cloth-covered boards. It was a world she remained outside.
It was the crab tracks she noticed first. The dotted patterns curving over the sand. So many, and in so many directions. Crabs scuttling in and out of holes that she had been tromping over without seeing. Whole lives going on during the night.
The next morning, the beach had been washed smooth by the retreating tide, revealing a volume of prints. The webbed triangles left behind by seagulls and the larger human marks: five toes and a heel, boots, sneakers and thongs. Feet turning inwards and outwards, the drag of a heel. The longer gait of a runner, up on his toes. Accompanied by dogs in various sizes. Sally started leaving her sturdy walking shoes at home, so as to make her own mark. The feel of the cool sand between her toes and the water splashing up her ankles brought a smile to her face, a giggle bubbling up in her throat.
IT WAS TOO cold for swimming, or so she found it at first. But day by day, the details sketched themselves in. The spotted gums crowding up to the cliffs, as if to peer over the edge. The sea caves, natural arches and blowholes recalled childhood adventures. Memories still vivid in the pastel landscape of her mind.
When the house she had shared with her husband for forty years was finally sold, the bay was the only place she wanted to go. The agent had told her that she was ‘very lucky’ to buy into the settlement. Properties were passed down through families or sold privately to like-minded souls. What their souls were like Sally had no idea, but their houses were modest, on large, tree-covered blocks, and they guarded the nature reserves with a fierce passion. The paths, she knew, were hand-clipped by a group of residents every long weekend. The bay and headlands were now a marine sanctuary. Any council plans, for toilets or picnic tables, were thwarted with well-directed letters from the ready panel of retired professors, scientists and lawyers. The acres of forest between the settlement and the old highway, the agent told her, would never be developed.
Sally remembered the families who bought up those blocks, or their previous generations. She had stayed in the Stevens’ rambling shack up at the point during summer holidays. Lisa Stevens had been her best friend all through high school. And they were tight with the Thawleys, Rogersons and Gordons. Sally had been in and out of most of the original houses, stolen beers from the eskies and bathtubs of many a party. But that had all been during the previous century. No one knew her now.
Mid-marriage, she had brought Leon to the bay for a fortnight away, hoping to relive those carefree days and show off her local knowledge – the tracks through shady forest to hidden rocky coves. They had travelled all over the world – wherever his uniform took them – and she had worried he found the place too low key, quaint at best. But he had, for years later, said that it was ‘the best holiday we ever had’. Sometimes Sally still found herself thinking and saying ‘we’. But that life was long gone.
One morning she noticed the matching red beaks and feet of a pair of sooty oystercatchers against the rocks. They moved away as she approached, with comical furtive steps, and then flew off – calling pleep pleep. They were back the next day, patrolling the waterline. Their trident prints were larger than those of the gulls, more pronounced, like their personalities.
Sally started walking earlier, before humans and dogs muddied the trail. She liked to see all the other stories playing out, other lives. The day she first saw the heron, the sky was without cloud, the ocean without swell or even a ruffle of breeze, as if setting the stage for his entrance. Her eye caught the movement, her body turned to see his white face on a slender grey body. He waded the rockpools with his long yellow legs, dipping his beak down to fish.
THE HOUSE SHE bought had been empty for a decade, its owners confined to a nursing home but still hanging on to the hope that they might someday return. Their children had cleaned it up and repainted the interior for the auction, but still it carried the sadness of long inoccupation. Sally preferred being outside, clearing the terraced garden of weeds, cutting back the overgrown shrubs. From the timber outdoor table she’d had delivered she could look over the beach while she ate lunch.
Leon had never appreciated the beauty of birds, only their scaly feet and sharp beaks. He had denied fear or phobia, but Sally wasn’t so sure. He had refused to go to the farmers’ market on Saturdays after the resident black swan followed him – pursued, Leon said – to the car park. From then on, Sally had to lug their produce back to the car alone.
One morning Sally startled the heron on the beach. She hadn’t noticed him against the white and grey wash until she was almost on top of him. Her head and shoulders jerking back was enough to send him across the sand and into the air, dark flight feathers exposed – calling oooooark. She followed the heron’s footprints across the sand, larger than the oystercatcher’s and more spread, spaced further apart as he lengthened his stride. Sally stopped next to the deep scratches in the sand, the exact point where he had pushed off, left the earth and taken flight. The sand beyond them was smooth, unmarked. Her skin tingled, her fine grey hair lifted from her scalp. For the first time, she understood what it would be to fly.
SALLY DRAGGED THE box of her mother’s things out of the garage and dusted off her old guidebooks and binoculars. She spent the morning with them, and a pot of tea, at the table. Her mother had crisscrossed the country to tick off species. Her original pocket bird book was a mess of ticks, dates and places, occasional comments and exclamations. The early trips had been family holidays, but many of the placenames were foreign to Sally, finally explaining her mother’s frequent absences.
Her mother had always called white-faced herons ‘blue cranes’, which Sally had visualised as a mythical bird, dropping newborn children down chimneys on the other side of the world. Her mother had seen white-faced herons up and down the coast it seemed, and inland over half the country.
The book deemed white-faced herons as common, but her heron was the only one in the bay. And once she managed to focus her mother’s old binoculars, she could watch him from anywhere in the house.
The days she did not see the heron always fell a little flat. She began walking in the evening as well as mornings, to double her chances. Her body grew thinner with the exercise, as if to mirror his. She found she could do without the mid-morning muffin she had been accustomed to in the city and, with no organic butcher around the corner, she gave up eating meat. Chicken, which she had never been passionate about, went first. Then the fortnightly fillet steak the doctor had recommended for her iron levels. The community bus took her to the weekly market, offering pretty displays of local vegetables, fruit, bread, dairy, eggs and seafood – and not a swan in sight. The family-owned seafood stall, just a blue awning strung off a refrigerated truck, was so bountiful, the staff so friendly, she tried every fish on offer – gurnard, kingfish, black snapper, bluefin tuna – and their other products: oysters, mussels, pipis and marinated octopus.
Over the weeks and months, she gained the heron’s trust, able to walk a little closer before he moved into deeper water or farther out on the jagged rock shelf. At first the sharp rocks cut her tender skin, but she found that if she relaxed her feet, and her mind, there was no pain. And over time her soles toughened into those of a beachcomber. In those moments of close proximity with the heron, something was exchanged. A charge arising from the solidity of the land and the salty water moving around them. A flash of silvery fish and slow-rising bubbles soothing Sally’s creaking body.
AS THE WEATHER warmed and the days grew longer, she found herself rising earlier and earlier. She threw open the windows of the house to rid it of the musty smell it carried, replacing it with briny sea air. Each week she chose a room to vacuum and scrub from top to bottom, clean the windows and oil the timbers, opening up a little more space inside herself. She filled an old planter box with herbs, the front beds with flowers, and dragged a great metal dish out of the bush to fill with water for the birds.
She had to rest a few days after that, admiring her work from the window seat and taking short walks about the garden. Then she started on the three overgrown terraces, removing weeds and kikuyu from the ’70s crazy paving and exposing stone steps leading down to the beach. She filled her green bin to overflowing every fortnight. Other houses seemed to have two green bins, but how they had obtained them remained a mystery. She had called council to enquire but was left waiting on hold for so long she had wandered out onto the deck to watch a passing sea eagle, and put the phone down. She hadn’t got around to trying again.
Her children had argued that the place was too much for her, having an assisted-living arrangement nearer to them in mind. But why should she be so reduced, at the tail end of her life? Surely she had earned the right, after decades of pleasing others, to live as she liked. She enjoyed being tired at the end of each day again, the way a body was supposed to be. And there was satisfaction in revealing the old bones of the place, giving it some love.
From the deck or the garden, she sometimes saw the heron fly by, neck retracted, his legs extending behind his tail, breastbone tilling the air. His rhythmic dipping wingbeats hypnotising her, such that she forgot her purpose.
During the school holidays, there were more people on the beach, even early in the morning. Sally was walking almost alongside the heron, with him as he waded and waited. She had begun to appreciate the stillness as a kind of enlightenment. An enlightenment she wanted. She was closer than she had ever been before, hands trembling, when a small naked child ran down to the water, screaming. The heron took flight, high into the air and around to the next beach, taking Sally’s good mood with him. She glared at the child and its parents, and stormed home, filled with unaccountable rage. The dry skin of her back began to itch, in the spot she could no longer reach, between her shoulder blades.
AFTER LUNCH SHE read and then napped on the day bed. She was working her way through a stack of new novels she had bought from the city, things she thought she should read or for the book club she no longer went to. But they seemed less and less relevant and, with a few exceptions, less satisfying than the classics Sally had read in younger life. She began the project of re-reading books from her shelves, and any paperback with a black or orange spine that turned up in the painted timber cupboard by the beach car park that was their community book exchange. Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles was transformed when Sally found that Tess and Angel’s summer of love was set against a background of herons.
Sally took to walking even earlier during the holidays, seeing the pinks of dawn, different shades and patterns every day. She developed a way of walking, through the shallows, that she liked to think was bird-like, taking one or two steps at a time, one leg raised high and coming down with no sound or splash, before she raised the other. She and the heron were alone on the beach, her eyes searching out his, when the first of the dog walkers arrived. The woman let her spaniel off the leash and Sally could only watch as it sprinted across the sand towards the heron, chasing him out to sea.
Sally climbed the steps to her garden, shoulders slumped. She spent the rest of the day hacking into the yellow Easter-flowering cassia they had been advised to remove from their gardens in the latest newsletter. Leon had been better at the practical aspects of gardening. Sometimes she remembered, with a start, that her husband was not yet dead, merely left behind with the other things she no longer needed.
THE MORNING THE heron floated in, to land outside her bedroom window, Sally could only blink. She had been awake since dawn, but the division between wakefulness and dreams was becoming less distinct, no matter the time of day. He stalked the edge of her newly defined garden and stopped to preen, his long legs anchored in shadows. Only when Sally sat up and reached for her glasses did he take flight.
When she tired of reading fiction, she pored over her mother’s bird books, and the new edition, inches thick, the local bookshop had ordered in. It was the heron’s elongated sixth cervical vertebra that gave his neck its S-shape, allowing him to stretch and retract and lunge far and fast at moving prey.
At last she understood the spark in her mother that had never been for them. From the kitchen sink, Sally could spot the heron on the rocks, pick terns from gulls, gannets from cormorants. And yet it was becoming more difficult to read, especially at night. Probably she just needed a stronger prescription, but she never had found a new optometrist. She liked to watch nature documentaries after dinner, but there was something wrong with the sound on the television, harder and harder to distinguish from the ocean.
When Sally’s toenails grew long, she did not, for the first time in her adult life, book an appointment with the podiatrist or even cut and file them, but rather marvelled at their yellow strength. They proved useful for picking washing and books from the floor, saving her hips and knees from bending down. And when the two outer toes on her left foot stuck together in a kind of cramp, she did not attempt to unprise them or make an appointment at the medical centre. It was several weeks before she noticed that the toes on her right foot had followed suit. The rest of her feet had spread, as if to compensate – or to walk more easily over the sand and the rocky shelf she now combed at dawn and dusk.
ONCE A WEEK – on the day she struggled up the driveway with the bins – she cleared the mailbox, mostly coloured pamphlets. She threw them, and anything with a clear front panel, straight into the recycling. The rest sat, unopened, on a growing pile on the bench, next to the laptop her daughter had sent, still in its box. She had decided that her new life would require less administration – and so it did.
She recognised her husband’s handwriting from time to time, and noted the ‘card only’ envelopes when she entered yet another decade. Somehow she never mustered the enthusiasm to open them, finding that she could anticipate what they would say. The light blinked more and more often on the answering machine her son had bought, but she had forgotten how to retrieve the messages, and had used the instruction booklet to light the fire back in winter.
A lingering sea mist signalled the arrival of the warm currents, those mysteries moving beneath the surface. When the mist cleared, two days later, the heron had been transformed. His eyes were darker and now focused on her rather than sliding away. His legs had turned a ruddy red. And his plumage! The delicate, floaty feathers on his mantle and scapulars, his neck flushed pink. Sally could only stare. His call, from only a few feet away, was a throaty graaw. It entered her body through her ears and mouth, swelling her lungs and chest. It was the most pure note Sally had ever heard.
The final morning of summer dawned clear and bright. The sea was calm, the tide just pulling out. The sun heaved above the horizon, spilling light onto the golden cliffs and craggy islands. Sally left the house open and picked her way down the steps. She strode along the beach, careful to avoid the bluebottles carried in by the north-easterly earlier in the week. The sand was cool and firm, barely any give. When she looked back, her feet left a shallower imprint than they had, but with a broader spread. More defined, and very much her own.
The heron turned to look at her over his shoulder. He stepped, spread his wings and lifted himself into the blue, his legs trailing behind him. He flew low, over her head, over the beach and then out to sea. Sally walked more swiftly, building to a jog. She found that she did not tire or feel any discomfort. Her ankles, knees and hips were loose and limber. She was filled with energy, her body part of the sea, the sand, the salt air, the forest and rocks – the vibrations of the universe itself. She ran faster and faster, up on her toes, her vision expanding to include the swell and tide, the north-easterly breeze, the prickly lobsters backing into the prickly green weed, the school of tasty garfish coursing beneath the surface of the sea. Until, at last, her feet left the sand.