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This document is part of the Ocean Girl Archive — Last update: 2009-02-15 — sourcemeta

Author:Peter Hepworth

5. Face-to-Face

They were out in midocean when they finally met Neri face-to-face again. Jason had just gained his boat license and, as part of his probation, had been sent to mark an illegal drift net for destruction. These nets swept the seas with their mesh, trapping not only fish but all other marine life as they went.

They had already freed two turtles and a young dolphin when Brett noticed the bubbles further along the line, bubbles that meant something else was caught in the cruel web below.

She had been trying to free an old lady turtle and in doing so got her own legs entangled in the drifting tendrils. The more she tried to kick herself free, the more they wrapped around her.

Jason drew the knife that was strapped to his ankle, sucked in a lungful of air and kicked down toward her. He came up behind the girl and began to slash at the net, cutting both her and the turtle free.

She spun around in surprise. Then she saw the knife. Before Jason could react, she was gone. With one kick of her legs, she shot away at an incredible speed into the depths. Jason could only gape.

“She was down there!” he gasped breathlessly as he hauled himself back on to the deck.

“I know,” Brett said with maddening calmness. He pointed. Neri had returned. Her head and shoulders bobbed in the water a little way off.

“Hey, Neri!” Brett yelled, waving. “Remember me?”

“Bre-ett,” Neri answered. But her eyes never left Jason. She was regarding him with a hostile glare.

“This is my brother, Jason,” Brett explained. “Don’t worry, he’s cool.”

“He hurt with little spear!” Neri said, accusing, and she made a shooting motion with her hands.

Jason realized she was talking about the crossbow and the whale. It took both boys several minutes to try to explain that the dart would do no harm and was only meant to help them learn more about the creatures.

Besides, Brett pointed out, didn’t Jason come to the aid of her and the turtle? Would he have done that if he meant them any harm?

Neri considered that and then seemed to relax a little.

Tentatively, Jason decided to bring up the subject of the island. He would like to see her home, he said. Would she take them there?

Neri thought a while before answering. “I ask friend,” she said. “You be here when sun is again there.” She pointed to the sky.

“The same time tomorrow?” Jason started to ask. But it was too late. With a flip of her body, Neri dived and was gone. They watched but she never broke the surface again in their sight.

“What did she mean about asking a friend?” Jason asked Brett. “I thought you said she was on her own?”

Brett looked blank and shrugged.

Dianne was in a thoughtful mood back in their cabin that evening. She explained that she and Winston had been having some problems in the lab. The recordings of the whale singing were fine, and she was building up a big library of tapes. The trouble was with the screen.

Often when the blip showing their whale appeared, they would see another smaller one moving beside it. They had thought this was just a minor fault in the equipment. But now they were beginning to wonder if it wasn’t another creature. A porpoise, perhaps. Or a seal. It was just rather strange, she said. Still, she conceded, dismissing the matter, there were a lot of strange things in the sea.

Behind her back, Jason and Brett exchanged a look.

“I should’ve known she wouldn’t turn up,” Jason said, disappointed.

He and Brett had been waiting out at the drift net site for two hours.

“Now who knows how long it’ll be before we see her again!”

He was about to restart the engine when Brett gave a shout.

Neri rose from the sea like a porpoise, in one exuberant leap that carried her clear of the surface. For a moment, she hung in the air, flying free against the clear blue sky, before plunging back into the foam and bobbing to the surface.

“Friend says yes,” she called. “You follow.”

Even with the engine at full throttle, the boat could not match Neri’s speed through the water, and she had to keep stopping to allow them to catch up.

As the water became shallower she guided them safely through a gap in the surrounding reef and into the calm seas that lapped against her island. They stepped ashore, and Jason stared about in wonderment.

Snow white sands curved out of sight on either side. Beyond the beach, great stands of rainforest trees grew thick and tall, their trunks interlaced with vines and creepers. Brilliantly colored birds flashed from branch to branch and butterflies the size of bread-and-butter plates flitted through the air.

They made their way inland, Neri leading the way. Each turn of the track revealed new sights. Dripping clusters of bright tropical flowers. Little marsupials who sat up on their hind legs like tiny kangaroos and watched them pass. Huge emerald green frogs with golden eyes. With a whoop, Brett darted forward to try to trap one in his hands, but Neri caught his arm.

“No further,” she said, indicating a tree just ahead with a mark blazed on its trunk. Then she pointed beyond and said, “Badlands.”

“Badlands?” Jason queried.

“Don’t go,” she replied solemnly. “Bad things happen there.” Without another word she turned on her heel and led them away down a sidetrack.

Later, as they frolicked in the cool waters of a stream near Neri’s home, Brett fell to thinking about the frogs again. He’d never seen anything like them before. And one would make the coolest pet to show off to his friends on ORCA.

Neri and Jason were occupied, swinging out on vines above the stream and plunging down, he with a great splash, she with a knifelike entry that scarcely caused a ripple on the surface. Brett slipped quietly away. As he passed the marked tree, Brett could see several of the frogs hopping away down the track ahead. He hurried after them.

Jason and Neri didn’t even realize he was gone until they heard his faint screams for help drifting on the wind. Neri was instantly on her feet and running. Jason pelted on behind, trying to keep up with her.

She hesitated for a moment when she came to the blazed tree, but Brett’s calls, closer now, seemed to help her overcome her reluctance. She ran on down the track with Jason at her heels.

The country around them seemed to change almost immediately. Lush rainforest gave way to mangrove swamp, a world of twisted, stunted trees and acrid-smelling pools of mud and brackish water. They found Brett up to his neck in a particularly foul pond of thick, oozing slime. Having got trapped, he had tried to struggle out, only to bury himself even deeper. Within a few more minutes, the clammy mud would suck him completely under.

Neri threw herself face down on the mud and kicked at Jason. It took him a moment to realize that she wanted him to hold her foot. When he had a firm grip around her slender ankle, Neri edged out, spreading her weight, and reached for Brett.

He managed to disentangle one hand and extend it toward her. Their fingers brushed. Once, twice. The third time, Neri lunged and grasped him around the wrist. Then she started to pull, slowly but steadily.

At first nothing happened. Then, with a reluctant slurping sound, the mud began to release its grip. As Brett came free, Neri looped an arm around his chest and dragged him back onto solid ground, where he lay gasping.

When he had got his breath back, he began to give his solemn word that he would never ever venture into the Badlands again.

Then he noticed that his brother wasn’t listening. Jason was staring at something that lay amongst the mangroves at the edge of the sea nearby. Several rotting metal ribs jutted up in a line. Others fell askew at odd angles or had already broken loose from the spine of the structure and disappeared under the water. Incomplete as it was, Jason had no doubt what he was looking at.

It was the remains of a craft.

“Is that how you came here? In that boat?” Jason asked. They were back at the place Neri called home. Having washed off the mud and dried himself by the fire, Brett was up in a tree, examining the nestlike structure high in the branches where Neri said she slept.

Neri frowned at the question, as though not quite sure of the answer.

“Well, it looks like it was a decent size,” Jason pointed out. “So there must have been a few of you.”

Neri looked thoughtful, as if she was trying to remember something a long way back. “Yes, I think, Ja-son,” she finally said, “when I am very little, perhaps many others. But all go. Soon only me and Father left.”

“Father?” Jason said, surprised. “Well where is he?”


“Gone where?”

“Just gone – forever,” she added simply.

“Jace,” Brett called down, awkwardly, “I think she means he’s, you know, dead.”

“Oh,” Jason said. “Sorry.” But he noted that she didn’t show any sign of sorrow at all. She simply acted as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

This unnerved him a little, but Brett chimed in. “Well, what about this other guy, this friend of yours? Who’s he?”

“Jali,” Neri said brightly.

Jason wasn’t sure he’d heard it right. “Charley?” he queried.

Neri considered a moment. Her father had taught her to speak, but it had been many years since she had reason to use words. Perhaps she had got it wrong. She shrugged. “Yes, Charley,” she agreed.

“Does he sleep up here too?” Brett asked.

Neri threw her head back and roared with laughter. The two boys looked at each other in confusion as she shook her head and kept repeating to herself in disbelief, “Charley! Sleep up in nest!”

“What’s the big joke?” Jason asked. “And whereabouts is this Charley anyway?”

Neri cocked her head to one side as though listening for something. Then she grinned.

“Just home,” she said. “Come see.”

She led them down to a sheltered cove. Jason peered around. There was nobody in sight. He was about to say something when he realized that Neri was intent, humming some strange tune to herself under her breath. Then she broke off, pointed out to sea and said, “There.”

At that moment, Jason suddenly became aware that something was moving under the surface at the mouth of the bay, a large dark shape.

The creature breached, lifting out of the sea before coming down with a crash and a spout of water from his blowhole. Even at the distance, Jason could see that it was a fully frown humpback whale.

“Friend Charley,” Neri smiled. She held up one arm in greeting. The whale slid under the surface. A moment later, his giant tail lifted into the air and the flukes swayed up and down in response.

Jason and Brett simply stood watching, dumbfounded, as Neri plunged into the water and headed toward him.

“Did you believe the way she just swam out there and right up to that thing?” Brett whispered. They were back in their cabin on ORCA and they didn’t want Mom overhearing anything.

Jason didn’t bother answering. There didn’t seem to be any point. They’d seen it with their own eyes. Neri’s friend was a humpback whale. It was crazy but it was true.

They both lay in reflective silence on their bunks for a while. Jason finally spoke. “I tell you how I figure it,” he said. “Wherever she came from, she was with a group of people on that boat. They must’ve run aground where we saw the wreckage, and couldn’t get off the island.”

“How old do you reckon she was?” Brett interjected.

“Hard to guess. She doesn’t seem to understand time very well. But pretty young, I’d say. Anyway,” he went on, “the rest of ’em died off pretty fast. Maybe they ate those berries, like you did, I dunno. But there was just her and her dad left. And then only her. So, with no one else around, somehow she made friends with Charley.”

“Yeah, maybe, but how did she learn to swim like she does? I mean, you’ve seen her, Jace. She rockets along. And she stays down there forever!”

“I dunno,” Jason replied, “but I reckon now we know what that little blip is Mom keeps getting on her screen.”

There was a long, thoughtful pause before he went on quietly. “Listen, Brett, I don’t think we should tell anyone else about her just yet. For one thing, I’m not sure she wants to be rescued. For another, well, to tell you the truth, I kind’ve like having the island to ourselves. For a little while longer, at least. So we keep our traps shut and enjoy it while it lasts. Is it a deal?”

His hand appeared from the top bunk. Brett gave it a slap of agreement with his palm. “Deal,” he said.