White Sand, Black Sea

by Carly Rawson

The worst of the cyclone had spared them but it still gave the town a good licking. The power was out, the roads full of water and downed trees. Sylvie, stiff from packing, felt sore too. They had lived by that beach for seven years. A drowning beach, big rips and big tides that ate the sand out from the dunes and sucked at the foundations of the holiday lettings. It was wild, but it was hers. Or it had been.

Someone had told her that each cell of the body is regenerated over a seven-year period. She didn’t feel new though, she felt redundant and trivial. What had she learnt? To use a broom to carry the plate-sized huntsmen from their fibro shack. To sleep in sheets gritty with sand. And that salt eats through everything, love included.

They were leaving the next day, going their separate ways. The rusted Volvo— once theirs, now his—sagged on its suspension in the driveway.

She sat on the balcony; a guttering candle shoved in an empty stubby. The humidity hadn’t let up and it felt as thick and oily as Vaseline on her skin. The ocean sounded savage. She had never slept easy there. Tsunami dreams and shark attacks and riptides on repeat. It was common apparently, living so close to the water with all its noise and energy.

She wouldn’t miss that, the constant talk about energy.

Their neighbour had dropped by a bottle of tequila as a parting gift. ‘You’re exiling yourself from paradise, man,’ he’d said, hugging her too tight and too long.

‘I wouldn’t be the first woman, man.’ She replied, shaking herself free.

But hours later she was thankful for the gesture. Her thirst was savage, desperate.

There was nothing to drink it with, and no glass. She pressed the neck of the bottle harder than was necessary against her lips. The tequila was warm and salty, almost indistinguishable from the air.

Cam woke as she rummaged through her pack for her thongs.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked, his voice disembodied in the empty room.

‘Going down the beach. I want to say goodbye.’

‘Are you drunk?’

‘A little.’

‘Fuck, Sylvie. What time is it?’


He sighed. ‘Give me a minute.’

He pushed up out of his swag. She could only make out his edges in the dark, the inverted triangle of his torso, the long rope of his leg. A surfer’s body. Something heavy turned in her stomach. The power being out was her poetic justice. The thick hush of velvet drapes being drawn over a movie screen. Fin, fini, the end.  She reached for him anyway, but he intercepted her hand, squeezing her fingers and letting them drop.

‘C’mon,’ he said, ‘let’s go.’

They were friendly enough to begin with. The tea trees groaned in the wind and the path through them was lost in the dark. They ditched their thongs and felt their way with their feet. The sand of the track was tamped cool and smooth as marble by the rain.

‘Remember the carpet python?’ Sylvie asked.

‘’How could I forget? I stood on it, thought it was a log.’

‘Remember that time at the lookout. Watching the sun come up. Those German tourists who caught us…’

‘Of course I do, Sylvie,’ he said softly.

On the beach it was different. The moon straggled into view and they saw the wreckage. The storm surge had cleaved the dunes into towering walls of sand. Driftwood and weed and banks of brown foam crowded the shoreline. In the distance she could see the dark neck of the lake feeding into the sea. He saw it too.

‘Jesus, it’s ages away.’

‘Please,’ she said, tugging at his arm.

‘Let’s go home, Sylvie. Tomorrow’s going to be bad enough without this shit.’


They did not fight nice, there was nothing left to hold back. A dead horse, even one as putrefied as theirs, was still forth a flogging.

‘What?’ She had to yell to be heard over the surf.

‘I said, I told you not to. I said, I never wanted you to do that.’

‘It’s done,’ she whispered.



‘Yeah, and you’re on your own.’

He walked away, his head bent into the wind like a battering ram. She watched him pick his way up the tangle of ruptured sandbags and wire that had served as a stairway. Watched him turn back to look for her.

‘You need help Sylvie,’ he yelled. ‘You’ve lost it.’

And then he was gone.

Every place was special there, depending on who you spoke to. It was the demographic; seeing magic everywhere confirmed their exceptionality. It was sacred this, and sacred that, as they played didgeridoo on the street with their white boy dreadlocks. There were crystals, great caverns of them below the town, they said. It was a healing place, they said, a hospital for the lost and wounded. Sylvie didn’t buy into it. You didn’t stay in hospital once you’d recovered.

It was ages away and it felt twice as far by night. She was slick with sweat when she crested the slight rise that led down to the lake. There was no ambiguity about this place. It was sacred. The Elders were specific. The lake for the women, the mountain for the men. Sylvie had felt the truth of it the first time she slipped out of her clothes and into the warm amniotic water. It was a birthing place, the tea tree tannin staining the water a deep blood red.

The thunder of the surf was muted, the air still and cool. She sat with her feet in the shallows and her fists deep in the sand. She whispered what she had to say, the same words over and over again, as steady as a heartbeat. The women were there, watchful, part of the water and soft mineral clay, a maternal contract binding them to place through time.

A curlew called loudly from the opposite shore, a plaintive infant wail. Sylvie’s skin puckered with fright. Close by something large thrashed out of the water and into the scrub. An equilibrium was disturbed. The moon was gone, and the wind had swung around bringing with it the urgent roar of the incoming tide. She felt drunk and uncertain, full of stirrings of emotion. It was time to go.

She hadn’t wanted it. The timing was wrong, their relationship shaky on its feet. She hadn’t wanted it until they made her labour for it. A few weeks too short for hope, they said. They were sorry. They lay him beside her while they swept the placenta from her womb, tidied things up. He was like a baby bird cast out of its nest. Skeletal and blue and broken by the fall.

She used landmarks to break the walk up. The log shaped like a lion seal. The old banksia tree that by day hung heavy and raucous with black cockatoos. The pandanus where she’d seen a woman practicing yoga, her naked body folded upon itself, arse saluting the sun. And finally, the pines in her neighbour’s backyard. They were still a long way off. She had to squint to make them out, their crowns lurching drunkenly in the wind.

Afterwards she’d defended herself.

‘I asked permission.’

‘From who, Sylvie? How?’ His lip was curled, incredulous.

‘I don’t know…The women. It’s a woman’s place. I just felt, I don’t know, connected.’

She looked at the ground to hide the colour in her cheeks.

‘An Aboriginal women’s place. Not yours, not your weird white fantasy. Sylvie, you’re becoming as bad as the rest of them.’

The tide had pushed her up on the soft sand. Her thighs burned, but she seemed to be getting nowhere. She hadn’t even passed the log. She had to have. It must have been dragged away by the storm, taken in the same way it was delivered. She was breathing heavily through her mouth. Tequila and the beginnings of panic coated her tongue. She hadn’t brought any water. She hadn’t even brought her phone.

‘Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink,’ she sung to herself. She didn’t feel alone down there. She’d told him that, then wished she hadn’t. It sounded like cosmic mumbo jumbo, or worse. She gained strength from the place, felt herself uplifted by the residual⎯there was no other word for it⎯energy. What she felt now was different. She wasn’t alone down there; she was being followed. It was Cam, she reasoned with herself,  his final act of chivalry. He’d been standing back, keeping watch over her.

But it wasn’t Cam, it wasn’t his style. He knew how to end an argument on winning terms.

She spun around. There was no-one behind her. Tongues of white water laid claim to the sand at her feet. The bloody neck of the lake was right there. She had barely moved. She looked to the dunes. Their sheer walls undulated, shapes thrusting forth and falling back. She rubbed her eyes. Water, she needed water. She was dehydrated, vision impaired, seeing spectres where there were none.

The salt on the wood of their fire spat eddies of sparks into the air. Sylvie nearly cried when she saw it. A small, spluttering blaze, but she threw herself towards it like a rescue flare. She heard music, something deep and throbbing. They’d have water, booze. She watched the dark silhouettes of their heads lean together, heard a cackle of laughter tear free of their tight circle. She needed to sit with them a minute, ground herself.

She fell twice trying to reach them but cried out only once. Snared in a forest of kelp, the tangled mass of it as cold and smooth as drowned flesh. She clawed herself free. The space between the shore and the dunes was narrowing, water sucking at her heels each time she lifted her foot clear of the sand.

‘Hey!’ she called.

But there was no-one there, no fire, no coals, no pile of discarded bottles. On all fours, she sobbed as she drew the empty sand towards her. Clouds raced across the moon and the light, strobe-like, threw up phantoms. Something dark crawling from the sea. Behind her the trickle of sand falling and a pale shadow melting back into the dunes. She was losing it. Cam was right.

Her little bird. He came back to her as ash. Ash in a box. In the height of the full summer sun she walked to the lake, two kilometres, more. Took her clothes off and wept in those waters. She lit some incense, read a poem. With a stick she dug a hole and poured him in.

She heard the music now clearly, the low drone ascending into high trilling peaks. Spot fires on the thin ribbon of beach ahead of her that she would never reach. She ran at the dunes looking for exits. The caravan park, she knew it was there, right beside her, knew it’s three walkways by heart. Her hands met solid sand. It was as useless as crawling up a wall.

The sand shapes were gathering form behind her. They didn’t hide when she turned. Something was running through the water towards her, slap, slap slap. She heard the sticks now, clap, clap, clap. She ran out into the surf and kept running until the waves closed over her head.



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