‘So, Nathan, what is the Aboriginal word for honey?’ asked Sharkey, as he swung the ute into a sharp right-hand turn. Nathan looked out his open window and down to his left, into the steep ravine known as the St Mary’s Pass. A ghostly afternoon mist clung to the ferns and trees that lined the sides of the gorge. Nathan could feel his hair dampening from the cool air coming through the window.
‘Not sure,’ he replied, absently.
‘Well, you’re Aboriginal, aren’t ya? You should know,’ said Sharkey.
‘Yeah, well…I’m sure there is a word for honey, but – ’
‘Thought ya were going to find out for us. Wanna use the name on me label. Be a good gimmick for selling the honey, I reckon. ‘Specially with the tourists.’
‘Yeah, probably,’ said Nathan. ‘I’ll look into it.’
‘That’d be good. And cheers for giving us a hand moving the hives. Really need to get them onto the prickly box, now the kunzea has finished flowering.’
‘Yeah, no worries.’ Nathan looked over at Sharkey and met his gaze. Sharkey liked to make eye contact when they talked in the car. Nathan thought it was a bad habit, but obliged him anyway.
‘Ya know what, Nath? I was serious when I said I’d give ya the ute if ya keep helping me out like this. I reckon you’ve just about earned it by now.’
‘Cheers, man,’ said Nathan.
They hit an intersection at the base of the pass, and Sharkey turned right onto the coast highway. The ocean appeared and disappeared, as the undulating road wound its way through farms and forests. They pulled into a concealed driveway, overgrown with drooping she-oaks.
‘Hives are just in there,’ said Sharkey, pointing into the bush. ‘Might want to suit up.’
Sharkey liked to make eye contact when they talked in the car. Nathan thought it was a bad habit, but obliged him anyway.
Both men got out of the vehicle. Sharkey reached into a black fish bin on the tray and pulled out two wrinkled supermarket bags. He threw one to Nathan.
‘This one should fit you.’
Nathan looked up at the sky. It was late afternoon and there was still plenty of light, but the sky over the ocean was darkening.
‘Looks like rain,’ said Nathan, as he shook out his bee suit. Sharkey was already zipping his up. He was one of those people who did everything flat out, and he had a skinny, wiry frame to prove it.
‘Yeah, well, that’s why we need to get these hives blocked up. Fast.’
They climbed through the broken wire fence, and made their way through the trees to the beehives. The hives stood out stark white against the green and brown hues of the coastal vegetation. Only two weeks earlier, the cotton-wool-like kunzea flowers were fragrant and alive with bees. Now, their dried and shriveled remains carpeted the ground, and the dank, piney smell of rotting she-oak needles layered the salty air.
Looking like spacemen in their white body suits and rubber gloves, the two men blocked up the hive openings with wads of crumpled newspaper, and heaved them over the fence and onto the back of the ute. The cacophony coming from the boxes rose a few octaves, as the bees were tousled about. The vibrations surged through Nathan’s fingers like mild electricity, causing the muscles in his forearms to flutter. The bees that had been shut out of their hives smashed themselves into Nathan’s mesh veil, trying to get to his face. Their menacing, high-pitched buzzing put him on edge.
‘Man, there’s some honey in these,’ said Sharkey, as they shuffled the hives around on the tray. ‘I’ll make some good coin out of this.’
While Sharkey roped on the load, Nathan wandered down towards the sea, and found a clearing surrounded by coastal wattles. He bent over and picked up a smooth stone that looked out of place. It bore markings that he had seen before.
The bees that had been shut out of their hives smashed themselves into Nathan’s mesh veil, trying to get to his face. Their menacing, high-pitched buzzing put him on edge.
Looking around the immediate area, he observed several more stones, just like this one. He picked up another. It had a waxy feel, and a long, serrated edge that looked as if it was sharpened only days before. It fit snugly into the palm of his hand.
‘What ya got there?’ called Sharkey. He had already taken off his bee suit and was striding down towards Nathan.
‘Stone tools,’ replied Nathan, indicating with a nod of his head to the scatter around their feet.
‘Give us a look,’ said Sharkey. His bony hand shot out and snatched the stone from Nathan’s grasp and held it up to the remaining sun as if to see through it.
‘Trust you to find this,’ said Sharkey, raising his eyebrows. He brought the stone close to his face, squinting at it while rolling it through his fingertips. ‘Don’t go tellin’ the rest of yer mob what ya found here. Bloody…next thing ya know there’ll be a land rights claim on me honey turf.’
‘It doesn’t work like that,’ said Nathan, through a sigh. ‘We can’t just claim land rights anywhere that we find artefacts.’ He expected a cocky remark but one didn’t come. ‘Anyway, all along this coast is the same. You can see where the old people camped and lived.’
‘Whatever,’ said Sharkey. He flicked the stone tool off into the bush and paced back towards the car. ‘Let’s get the fuck-off outta here.’
Drops of rain peppered the windscreen, as Sharkey backed the ute out of the driveway. Its rusty leaf springs groaned, as the ute laboured over the pot-holes.
‘There’s some weight in her,’ said Sharkey, smiling. He was in a better mood, now the hard work was almost done. All that was left to do was to lift off the hives at the new location. Sharkey got the ute up to highway speed, looked in the mirror to see how the hives were riding, and reached his hand behind Nathan’s seat to extract a six-pack cooler.
‘Drink?’ He pulled a Jim Beam can off the ring and pointed it at Nathan.
‘Got one, thanks.’ Nathan took a Fanta from the cooler down by his feet, wiped the top of the can on the leg of his bee suit, and then opened it. It was cold and gassy, and burned the back of his parched throat.
Sharkey expertly opened his drink with one hand and took a swig. He rested his Beam on the seat between his legs, pulled a half-smoked cigarette from the ashtray, and lit it. The ute swerved, as he took his hands from the wheel.
‘Those stone tools back there. They’re not that special, ya know?’ said Sharkey. He took several drags on his cigarette and, with the last one, blew a smoke ring at the windscreen.
‘Well – ’ Nathan began.
‘Growing up, me and me brothers spent all our time down at the river. We lived at Deloraine, and the river was just across the paddock from our house.’ Sharkey wound down his window, and flicked out the cigarette butt.
In the side mirror, Nathan watched the butt explode into a shower of sparks, as it bounced off the slick road and spun off into the night.
Sharkey shivered dramatically, as the cold rain blew under his collar. He quickly closed the window. ‘We used to skip stones a lot, and we would set shit-loads of deadlines. We’d go back in the morning and check ‘em before school. Always got fish. Anyway, Uncle Murray – Mum’s brother – he used to come and stay with us, sometimes. One day, we took him down the river for a fish and he found these stone tools – like the ones you found today, only there were heaps more of ‘em.’ Sharkey downed the last of his can and threw the empty into the back. He lit another cigarette, drew in deeply, and exhaled as he spoke, making his voice waver.
‘Uncle Murray said the blackfellas used the stones to cut things because they weren’t smart enough to invent knives. He said that if Grandad and the other farmers ever found stone tools on their land they would bury ‘em or throw ‘em in the river so that your mob couldn’t come along and claim land rights.’
Nathan could sense Sharkey smiling over at him, but he refused to look back. He pulled off his beanie and rans his thumbs over the rough embroidery of the Aboriginal flag.
‘Uncle Murray said that if Grandad and the other farmers ever found stone tools on their land they would bury ‘em or throw ‘em in the river so that your mob couldn’t come along and claim land rights.’
‘Anyway, when me uncle left, we looked all along the river and found heaps more patches of the bloody things. Hundreds of ‘em – all different types, ya know? Different colours and that.’ Sharkey slowed down the ute and turned left onto the St Mary’s Pass road. He kept an eye on the hives in the mirror, as he began to ascend the steep road and rounded the first few sharp bends. Satisfied the hives were sitting well, Sharkey turned back to Nathan.
‘Do ya know what a duck-fart is, Nathan?’ he asked, breaking the silence.
‘No,’ Nathan lied. He had some idea of what it was.
Sharkey cracked a fresh can and drank half in one go. He burped loudly and blew the gassy stench towards his passenger, before going on with his story. ‘It’s when ya throw a stone up into the air and it lands in the river, making a funny sound. You have to get a thin sort of stone – rounded so that ya can wrap your finger ‘round it. When ya throw it up into the air, ya have to get a good backspin on it. If ya throw it right, when it lands in the water, it doesn’t make a splash. It makes a kind of ‘plop’ sound. That’s why it’s called a duck-fart.’
Nathan, silent, stared down at the beanie in his lap. He knew where this was going.
‘Those stone tools along the river – the ones yer ancestors knocked up – they made the best duck-farts. They are like the perfect type of rock for it.’ Sharkey laughed to himself and looked over at Nathan, expectantly.
‘Me and my brothers would have thrown thousands of them into the river, in those days. I doubt there would be any left around there, now. But ya can’t get away with that anymore,’ jibed Sharkey, chuckling. ‘Can ya?’
‘Nuh,’ was all Nathan could muster. He noticed his hands were trembling.
‘Hope I’m not offending ya,’ said Sharkey, smug.
Nathan shrugged, and looked back out of the window.
Sharkey finished his drink and threw it on the floor. He turned the wipers up a notch, to combat the now-pelting rain. ‘These bloody cans are going down a bit too nicely,’ Sharkey said. ‘Let’s hope the St Mary’s cop isn’t out and about tonight.’
For the next few kilometres nobody spoke, and Nathan was grateful for the silence.
As they got close to the top of the pass, Sharkey grabbed another cigarette from the dash console, and put it to his mouth. He fumbled with the lighter and it fell to the floor in front of him. Nathan watched him reach for the lighter, his fingers probing the dirty, worn carpet below his seat.
As Sharkey dropped his head below the wheel, to take a look, the ute swerved to the side, and the tray clipped the steep, rocky wall of the pass, causing the back end to slide out. Sharkey tried to correct the ute by swinging heavily on the wheel, but it had lost traction on the wet road. The vehicle flipped onto its roof and went skidding into the guardrail on the cliff side of the road. Even from his upside-down position, Nathan could see the rail buckle and wave.
For a moment, the only sound was a hissing noise – coming from the tyres or the engine – and the scattering of window glass, but within seconds a droning sound rose, and grew steadily louder. Nathan looked over at Sharkey, who was also hanging upside down. Sharkey’s eyes were glazed over. His nose was broken and bent at an obscene angle. His face was covered in blood and something else.
For a moment, the only sound was a hissing noise – coming from the tyres or the engine – and the scattering of window glass, but within seconds a droning sound rose, and grew steadily louder.
The drone turned into an angry roar. Nathan felt something dangling against the back of his neck. He reached around and felt for the hood of his bee suit. He drew it over his head and, with shaky hands, pulled the zips from the back around to the front, sealing it off.
The bee hives were scattered along the road, and some were piled up against the guard rail. The individual boxes had come apart and the frames were oozing their sticky, amber contents onto the asphalt. The light from the headlamps dimmed, as the dazed bees took flight. Their roar was deafening.
Sharkey was crying. The way his lips were pulled back from his teeth, as his white, panicking eyes took in the scene before him, reminded Nathan of a horse his sister had, when he was a kid.
‘Oh God…what…shit, help me Nathan. Ya gotta get me out of ‘ere!’ Sharkey screamed, above the din of the bees.
Nathan released his own seatbelt and, holding onto it, eased himself down to the velour ceiling of the ute. He kicked the shattered windscreen out with his foot. Bees flooded in.
‘Hey, where – hey, where are ya going? You can’t leave me.’ A strange calmness had appeared in Sharkey’s voice – a sure sign that he’d lost it.
Nathan turned back to look at him. Sharkey had given up trying to release his seatbelt and was frantically swatting at the bees attacking his face. Nathan began to crawl out of the car and was shocked at the sight in front of him. The car headlamps were almost completely blacked out by the dense swarm of bees. Their frenzied movement created a breeze that Nathan felt through the mesh of his veil.
The crumpled ute pitched and squeaked, as Sharkey thrashed in his seat. Nathan crawled through the wall of bees and out onto the road. He slip-slided his way through the honey and smashed-up wax, until he reached the guard rail and pulled himself up.
Now on his feet, and with the lights of the car behind him, Nathan stumbled up the road into the dark. As if on cue, the rain stopped. The noise of the bees grew quieter, as he got around the first bend.
With a steady hand, he unzipped the hood of his bee suit and let it slide from his head. His beanie dropped to the ground and he retrieved it, holding it to his chest. The air felt good and cool on his face. A car would come along soon.
As he walked up the dark road in a calm daze, a faint smile appeared on his lips. What is the Aboriginal word for honey?