Brittle Fish

by Susie Greenhill


So cold the day the first eggs hatch. A wind the colour of salt and smoke whips across the ledge where you have built your nest. You are uncomfortable, the long weeks of incubation weighing on your body, and you pass the morning transferring the grasses you have gathered on the tide- line from the exposed outer rim into the interior of the nest. Resting on your feet, your warmed egg waits.

The crack appears across the shell the way lightning breaks over the ocean. It’s thin and dark, and with it comes the smell of grey-fleshed fish and drying blood. It is some time before the creamy shell around it begins to cave. The incisions your chick has made with its beak are small compared to its body. The egg rocks a-rhythmically. Gradually, a clear, sometimes ochre fluid leaks onto your feet and the nest below. You watch, and resist the urge to push into the crack with the point of your beak.

Trembling, the egg rolls onto its side and its upper wall shatters against the nest. Your chick, with eyes closed, tries to free his wing from the clinging inner sack. With your beak, you carefully tug it aside with pieces of the remaining shell, and although the chick is not fully hatched, instinctively, you begin to preen his sticky down. There is commotion on the rock as another bird’s mate returns from a catch to a nest at your back. The wind rises, and beyond the shore below the sound of the swell grows louder.

Once your chick has freed himself completely from the shell, you gently nudge his frail, flailing body back under the shelter of your wing, but he is hungry, and before long he taps his small beak quickly against your own. It is some time since you have been to sea, but with the little food that is left in your stomach you’re able to give your chick a feed, and he sleeps. For a long time you watch the sky over the horizon for signs of your returning mate.

You fly out to the ocean in search of fish. The day you begin you let the East wind carry you high above the black of the sea. The wind is warm, and the heat of the sun beats down upon your back. Far below you, the surface ripples with movement, and something on a swell’s back catches your eye. You start to circle, and descent reveals a flock of pale birds feeding from a surfacing shoal.

On the water, the first of the fish you catch is tough and dry. It’s almost tasteless, but you are hungry and once it is swallowed you lunge towards another at your side. The fish are angular – some hollow, some flat. They are brilliantly coloured, like the rainbow, and some are too long or too large for you to swallow in one. But you chip at their flesh with the edge of your beak. You stretch back your neck and force them down. Barely moving, and seemingly unafraid, they make easy prey and you spend a long time grazing with the other birds in the heart of the shoal.

The sun lowers, and rises, and lowers again. In the distance an arc of hunting dolphins pierce the waves, and with your belly full, you lift from the water and travel back to your nest and your chick. You are full of trepidation as you land, after leaving him alone, but he is there, and awake, and tapping at your beak. You feed him the strange and brittle fish.

The days grow hot and humid. Your small chick’s down is greasy and warm. His hunger is easily satisfied by the coloured fish you bring him, but he is not growing as fast as he should, and he’s lethargic, sleeping often in the crook of your wing. His eyes are dull. The salt winds snatch at his feathers. They unravel the grasses you have woven through your nest. You had hoped to rest for several days, but although you are weary, and as your mate has not returned, you fly out again to the ocean.

Through these weeks the winds begin to fail. After feeding you spend long, exhausted hours becalmed on the silent water. There are other birds and among you float the queer and motionless shoal. The sky fills with cloud and darkens the sea. You think of your chick, alone on the rock, and watch as one of the birds at your wing chokes on a large, transparent fish. As the struggling bird tries to lift from the water, half swallowed, the fish expands and contracts and rustles with every panicked breath. Unable to fly, the grey bird flaps across the surface to where others drift, and then grows still.

When the winds rise again you fly south towards your nest on the basalt island. Your chick, like so many others on the rock, is still small and thin. Although you feed him again and again he stays silent, and his strength continues to wane. In his stomach the fish you have gathered for him don’t swell and don’t dissolve. They provide him no nourishment, but lodge themselves heavy, like stones, in the pit of his tiny gut.

Rain falls. His tapping is slower now. Through half closed eyes he watches the crabs that scuttle across the spray-wet ledge, and the swaying fins of the seals that sleep in the gravel dunes beyond the beach. For a time you let him nuzzle at your side, his little body warm below the feathers of your wing. You close your eyes and yearn for sleep, but return to the ocean in search of fish.


Susie Greenhill is a Tasmanian writer whose stories have been published in Australian anthologies and journals. She has a Phd in creative writing and environmental literature from Edith Cowan University. She is writing a novel about motherhood, extinction and bio-luminescent life – a love story between humans and nature – set in Tasmania’s remote south- west.