Boxer is a story that I wrote a few months back for a short story competition. It is very loosely based on Esperance’s settlement, and a short snippet of a story that I’d heard, about how Boxer Island got its name.
Boxer sat on the damp sand, waiting. He watched as the towering waves grew, then collapsed into a seething mass that surged onto the shore, one following on the heels of the other. Even on a day such as this, a day that was up to no good, the sand on this beach was pristine. Not a footprint disturbed the surface, and the beach seemed new born. The rocks that scattered the shore, like hidden sharks’ teeth, were under the surface of the sand, Boxer knew. Not everything is as it seems. Surely they wouldn’t be able to launch the boat in this kind of weather, he thought. These waves’d break that wooden tub to pieces. Idly, he rubbed at his cheek, feeling the welt that had been raised by last night’s fight. He poked his tongue at his teeth on the same side-yep, sure enough, one was loose. That’d be another big gap, if that one fell out. He rubbed his grazed knuckles on his moleskin pants. Maybe when those Dempster boys came down to the deserted mooring, he’d just let fly with a few punches. He could take two of them at once-he’d done it before. Huh-those boys thought they ran the place. They’d want to give him a talking too, sure enough. Maybe worse-Lord knew he’d caused quite a bit of trouble last night. Well, Boxer thought, clenching his big, callused hands-sometimes fists did the best talking.
Andrew Dempster strode down onto the beach his big boots sinking deep into the sand, fists clenched at his side. His cheeks were ruddy, from the cold air and his temper, matching his red hair. “Boxer. What the hell! How dare you lay a hand on my men…”
Boxer stood slowly from his seat on the sand, his broad shoulders and oak barrel chest matching Dempster’s physique. The deep brown of his skin, the scarring on his face, and his black eyes and hair, stood out starkly in contrast to Dempster’s white, red-veined skin. He folded his arms across his chest, and stared at the angry man, now hollering right into his face.
“What happened last night? Billy’s got a broken nose, cracked teeth, probably a few broken ribs too. Plus Carter won’t be working for a few days, at least.” He rubbed a meaty hand across his face, his brow damp even in the cold autumn air. “Look, I thought we could work together, but it’s all off now. The other boys are on their way down here now. They’re going to take you out to the Island for a few days.”
Boxer stayed silent, staring Dempster in the face, defiance and contempt in his steely black eyes. The other blackfellas wouldn’t stare someone in the eyes like that. Might as well spit in the man’s face. But he didn’t care anymore what Dempster thought. What could the Dempster boys do to him that hadn’t already been done?
The previous night. Yeah, there’d been trouble, for sure. Billy Smith had been sniffing around down at the Aboriginal camp. Someone had given Boxer a half-bottle of rum earlier that day–thought it was ok to pay blackfellas in rum rather than in real money, they did. It was better than no pay at all, of course. At least rum would buy you a few hours of forgetfulness. They were drinking the rum, he and his brothers, around the campfire, when he had heard a girl scream. Could’ve been kids playing, or someone who’d taken a step off the path and onto some sharp rocks, but Boxer had gone to check it out anyway. He walked towards the noise, away from the light of the fire. The bush around the campsite was sparse, worn thin from feet and from branches being taken for firewood and shelter. Still, in the dark, it was easy to stay hidden. He heard scuffling nearby, and in a few quick steps, he had grabbed a handful of Billy’s flannel shirt, hauling him off an indignant girl. Minnie. She was only young, barely had breasts yet. She pulled her clothing together, hands shaking, and slipped into the shadows.
“Lemme go!” Billy flailed his arms in Boxer’s direction, a strong smell of alcohol coming from him.
”What the hell you think you’re doing?” Boxer had growled. His muscles were tight as a spring, ready to knock this fella’s block off. He knew Billy–lazy and proud, but as sly as a snake.
”Carter! Carter!” Billy yelled. He twisted this way and that, trying to get out of Boxer’s grasp. Carter pushed through the bushes coming from the direction of the camp. Where had he been snooping?
“Put him down.” Carter demanded. He was a burly man, always with a plug of chewing tobacco in his cheek, his teeth streaked brown. Control yourself. Boxer heard his mother’s voice in his mind.
”You black bastard. She wanted it….” His head filled with white hot noise, blocking out his mother’s words. Then he plowed his fist into Billy’s jaw, and followed up with two quick punches, one to his face, one to his gut. Billy yowled, and struck back, catching him on the jaw, before a hard fist to the ribs felled him. Boxer whirled to face Carter, who was advancing on him with a big stick. He threw all of the rage and frustration that he felt into the punches, and in a few short seconds, Carter too was lying on the ground. Boxer spat a mouthful of blood and walked off. Soon enough they would crawl back to the settlement.
We motor in towards the island, twin outboards humming. “See, that one is Figure Eight Island. There’s a couple of islands in the archipelago that have snakes on them-that’s one of them. Death adders.” He points through the spray on the windshield at the long rocky shape in front of us. White spray flies up as the waves crash onto the rocky shore, and beyond, there is sparse bush. He pulls down the leaver, and we slow, the engine noise decreasing to a purr. The swell bobs us up and down as we drift, the sea spray drifting over the back of the fishing boat. We walk to the back of the boat. He points to the neighboring Island. “That one’s Boxer Island. It’s a pretty big one, around two kilometers long.” Every island looks the same to me out here, on this remote stretch of coastline, some big, some small. Most have the same, granite shoreline, giving way to the few battered bushes that can survive the fierce winds and the salt air around here. Boxer has quite a bit of bush–I can make out low trees at the crest of the hill above a rocky bay. “It’s supposed to be named after an Aboriginal bloke, Boxer. He was called that cause he used to fight a lot, and apparently the Dempster brothers dumped him out here to stop him causing trouble.”
”Hang on a minute. You mean the Dempsters, like the ones who settled Esperance?”
“Yeah, that’s it. The two main brothers were James and Andrew.”
James and Andrew. The main streets in town are called James street and Andrew street, and there’s a Dempster street as well. Other landmarks, too, bear the name of these men who were the first Europeans to settle here, in the 1860s. I wonder at the cruelty of men who could leave someone out here. The south coast of Western Australia has always been wild and dangerous.
“Wanna have a closer look? The little bay there is quite sheltered.” We hum in towards the island, and the water flattens out, deep inky blue giving way to the achingly clear turquoise of the shallow water around here. Little waves lap at the granite rocks of the shoreline, and a Pacific Gull loops in lazy circles over our heads. I can see a fat seal lying on the rocks, eyes closed in the warmth of the sun. Up at the treeline, the sun casts shadows towards us, and a shiver goes through me. I’m not usually one for superstition, but I can certainly feel some kind of presence here. The air hums, and a shiver of apprehension runs up my spine.
Boxer faced Andrew Dempster, listening to the waves crash, a gull calling. He really didn’t care what Andrew thought–everyone knew that he talked a lot, and didn’t usually do much. It was only when James strode down the beach, jaw set, eyes flashing with anger, that Boxer felt a shiver of nervousness. James was a small man, with narrow shoulders. Boxer could easily beat him in a fight, it would be like fighting a woman. But the man had a fierce temper, and never went anywhere without men and guns. So everyone minded him. Several men followed, one with a shotgun. They stopped a good distance from Boxer. James strode close enough that Boxer could smell his sour breath, and spoke through gritted teeth. “Get in the boat, Boxer.” Boxer turned to gaze at the crashing surf, watching as the whaleboat tugged at her moorings, pulled by the surf.
”It’s rough, boss.”
James held one hand on his hat, stopping it from flying away in the gusting wind. “We’re going anyway Boxer. One of my best men is laid up. There’s talk among the men that they don’t want to work with the natives anymore, they’re scared of you. We can’t have that.”
Boxer rubbed a hand across his brow. “Boss, they was messing with our women. You know I don’t stand for that….”
James turned his head to the side and spat in the sand. “Get in the boat.”
The whaleboat was sturdy, and it had a sail that could be raised if the wind was favorable. Seven men were in the boat-the two Dempsters, and Boxer, three of the other men from the settlement, and one other blackfella, a man from another tribe somewhere north of here. The men called him Smiley. Three men sat on each side of the boat, pulling in long strokes of the oars, and James sat in the bow. The spray from each wave drenched them in minutes, but soon the men were covered in a sheen of sweat as well. It was hard work, but Boxer soon felt the hypnotic sway of the rhythm, forward-pull, forward-pull, forward-pull. The mainland, with the fledgling settlement and the Aboriginal camp, soon faded into the distance. The day was clear, with a fierce breeze, whipping the waves into wild, hurried peaks. James pulled at the ropes, and the sail rose, and soon the whaleboat was chopping through the waves. Boxer could make out Black Island. The ocean here was teeming with islands, more than he could count. Many were small, no more than rocks, craggy and rough, spray flying around them. Some were larger, big enough for seals, sea birds, Cape Barren Geese, even some lizards and snakes to live on. One of these was Black Island-named for the blacks that they dumped there, kind of a makeshift prison. That was where they were taking him. There was shelter there, some bush and some animals. Water. Some other blackfellas, too. It was possible to survive, and at least it wasn’t that far from shore. Forward-pull, forward-pull. Smiley sat next to Boxer in the front of the boat,both silent as they pulled in unison on the oars. “I heard ‘em talking back at the camp.” He spoke in a low voice, and Boxer had to lean in to hear him over the splash of the waves. “The big one, with red hair? He wanted to just shoot you.”
James was at the tiller. The sun was high in the sky now, and Boxer began to get a sense that something was wrong. He could see Black Island out to the side, and maybe James was confused, but they were going to miss it. The men were silent, breathing hard as they pulled at the oars. “Boss.” Boxer broke the silence. “Boss, where we going? That’s Black Island there.”
“Shut up. We’re not going there.” Boxer kept up the rhythm. Forward-pull. It was past noon when James finally pointed, and said, “There, that one.” The island was long, and from this distance, looked quite green.
”Is it Figure Eight?” This from Andrew, who had been silent the whole time.
”No. Figure Eight is that one over there. Dunno what it’s called, but it will do. Big enough, and far enough away.”
Boxer clenched his jaw in anger at this little man with big power. His fists ached, from the rowing, and from wishing to crack directly into James’ jaw. He glanced at the rifle, tucked under one of the bench seats.
The Island had a sheltered bay, on the side that faced Figure Eight Island. The men rowed into the calm waters, grateful for the sudden stillness. James pulled the gun from under the seat, and unwrapped the oilcloth that was around the barrel. He pointed it at Boxer. “Swim.”
Boxer glared at him in silence. This bastard. He’ll get what’s coming for him. “Swim.” James repeated. Boxer stood. A hand tugged the leg of his pants.
”Here, you’ll need this.” Smiley thrust a bundle into his hands. James’ eyes grew darker, and Boxer knew the blackfella would be given the worst jobs when they returned to the settlement. Boxer grasped the bundle and stepped off the edge of the boat. The water closed over him like a grave, dark and icy cold. He kicked, and his head broke the surface. James still had the gun trained on him, and the men in the boat watched silently as Boxer kicked away towards the rocky shore. Anger boiled in his veins, and he kicked and pulled through the water stiffly. The Dempster brothers would pay, that’s for sure. Boxer’s mother had been a powerful woman, in their old ways. She had taught him some things. She had been no match for bullets, though, and so weak, weak James, with his scrawny arms, would have to wait. He kicked and pulled towards the shore, and heard the splash, splash, as the men started to row.
We lie in the sun, on the deck, eating cheese and drinking chilled wine. The boat rocks gently on the tide, up and down, and the sun warms me after a swim in the icy water. Still, I think of Boxer Island, so close, yet I don’t want to go ashore.
“How far is it to the mainland from here?”
“Hm?” He is drifting off in the sun. “Oh, about 8 nautical miles straight to the shore. That’s 15 kilometres, there abouts. Probably more like 25 kilometres back to Esperance. Long way to swim.”
He is thinking of it too. A long way to swim.
It took until nightfall to walk around the Island. There were trees, up away from the shore, and the strong winds made them grow low and twisted. Good for shelter. After he had pulled himself up on the rocks, scraping over the barnacles and slippery weed, Boxer had unwrapped the bundle Smiley had given him. Damper, wrapped in oilcloth, and a canteen of water. And, worth more than gold to him right now-a flint and a knife. Could save his life. Boxer built a fire each night, made a makeshift spear, and cooked fresh fish, abalone, cockles and lizards. The lizards were almost unafraid, lying fat and sleepy on the rocks. He remembered as a young boy, trying to catch lizards. Crying with frustration. “You are too hasty,” his mother told him. “Control your strength. Wait. Be patient. You will get that cheeky goanna.” The girl had laughed at him-already, she had her quarry, fat and writhing, held in both hands above her head. Even then, even as a small boy, he had known he wanted to make her his wife. Wait. Be patient. Control your strength.
He could stay here. It would be easy to forget about the Dempsters, the whole damned lot of them, their fat sheep, their horses, their guns. Boxer thought of the back breaking work, the beatings, the men who were shot with those bullets, so tiny, but they would end a man’s life right then and there. He thought of his tribe. The children, always noisy, always walking in front of him, grabbing at his leg, threatening to send him sprawling. The little boy, fat and lazy, who would sit next to him at the campfire, asking for the best bits of meat. Or the shy girls, growing into womanhood, hiding their faces and giggling as he walked past. The women worked still, as they had in the days before the white men came, day in, day out. Only now, they were silent as they went about their tasks, rather than chattering loudly, singing and laughing. The young boys, growing up, learning white man ways rather than their own. The Dempsters had brought this change. Too many of the old men had died, and some of the men had left. Shot, for taking sheep to feed their families. Forced to go far beyond the old hunting grounds to find food. Some gone to join the white men in search of adventure and sugar in their tea. It would be easy to stay here, but he had to go. He thought of the Dempster boys. Andrew, always promising the blackfellas so much, and giving so little. James, with his flinty eyes, hasty with his gun. They had to pay. Wait. Control your strength.
The day that he left the Island, Boxer ate well. He ate fish, cooked over the coals, as the sun broke over the horizon. He ate the lizard he caught the day before. He wished for damper or hot tea with sugar, but he ate everything he could find to fill his belly. It was a still, cold autumn morning, mist hanging over the sea, gulls flying low and calling mournfully. He watched them, thinking that if he didn’t make it to shore, this would be the last day that he ever heard that low cry. He looked into the distance, in the direction of the shore, and he thought he could see the distant shapes of hill, far off. Or maybe it was another island. To row directly to shore, with a crew of six men, would take hours, so to swim would take him all day, certainly. He had only ever swam short distances before, spearing fish, or breaking abalone from the rocks. He made himself stop thinking about it, and wrapped the flint tightly in a piece of oilcloth. He thought about his pants and his shirt, as well as his hat and canteen, filled with water he had collected from the rock pools. To take them would weigh him down. To leave them would mean arriving on shore without clothing or shelter. In the end, he left everything but his shirt and the flint, which he tied around his neck. He was sad to leave the moleskin pants.
The water was icy cold, and Boxer struck out in the direction of shore as soon as the sun rose fully above the horizon. He pulled himself through the water, falling into a rhythm, thinking of nothing but the steady kick of his legs, the pull of his arms, the rise and fall of the swell. The water was so cold it hurt his skin, made his muscles ache with tension. He pushed the thoughts from his mind. Kick, pull. Rise, fall. He lifted his head from the water to see, in front of him, spray flying into the air, the water white and frothy. Rocks underwater. Hidden danger. He angled away from the white water, kick, pull. Too late, he realised that the current was pulling him towards the rocks. He kicked hard, caught in the rolling waves as they rose over the underwater hills, rushing to crash in a white fountain over the rocks that were only just beneath the surface. Kick, pull, and the water pulled him under, and for a moment he could taste sea water and his own rising panic. Steady. Don’t panic. Control yourself. Kick, pull, and as the wave receded, he pulled to the side. Then again, and he was free from the current that threatened to drag him into the deadly rocks.
He pulled away from the rocks, panting hard, blood pounding in his temples. Suddenly not cold. He looked back at the Island that he had swum from. Not too far behind, and yet already he felt that he couldn’t go on. Maybe he should turn back? No. Who knew when he might get another day like this, with the right winds, and calm seas. A rough day would drown him, certainly. And a week on the Island with no rain could see him die of thirst, perhaps. He had to swim on. He turned onto his back for a minute, and rested, sun warm on his face, swell lifting him up and then down. He thought of his mother, and prayed for some of her strength, so that he could go on, full of the energy of the sea. Not drowning. He didn’t want to drown.
Kick, pull. The sun rose high into the sky, and his limbs grew numb, his mind grew numb. Grateful for the warmth of the sun, but wishing now for water. He rested, eyes closed beneath the endless empty blue of the sky, then turned and swam again, kick, pull. There was no island now, no settlement, no Dempsters or Aboriginal camp. No guns or sheep, no whale boats, no damper. Only the endless, inky blue ocean, and the rocks that lay beneath. Only him and the sky.
The sun grew low in the sky, began its swooping dip towards the horizon, like a dancer determined to scoop up the very dirt. Boxer’s throat burned, and he could think of nothing but water now. His eyes burned. He could think of nothing but sleep. He could sleep here, now, in the arms of his lover, the sea. He could rest. No, he needed to swim, to press on. He lifted his head, and scanned for the shore, and suddenly, it seemed close enough that he could make it. He could see the white sand. Kick, pull. He made his mind blank, and pulled his body through the water. Inky blue. He thought he could see fish below him. The sun slid lower in the sky. He had to make it to the shore before nightfall, so he could find shelter. Kick, pull.
Soon, he was close enough to make out individual beaches. Some of the beaches in this area had reefs of razor sharp rocks and breaking surf, deep enough out that it would cut you to ribbons and drown you at the same time. One beach was sandy, not many submerged rocks, and had streams of fresh water that came from the limestone cliffs. They all looked the same from out here, and he prayed that he was making for the right beach. Kick, pull. The swell rose, with the shallower ground, and whitecaps formed, lifting him up and down, up and down. He was so close, almost close enough to touch the shore. He could make it, surely.
Then the waves grew into towering, live things, lifting him into the air, then hurtling him down, in a tumble of salt and fury. He pulled his head clear of the water, only to have the next mountain of surf crash down on him, picking up his legs and tumbling him over and over. He felt sharp rocks scraping his arms, his legs. He kicked and pulled, this way and that, and finally broke the surface, gulping down air. Then again, before he was ready, before he had a chance to fill his burning lungs, the next wave was upon him. He was under it, and turned over and over, up and down and around, in a moment, and he didn’t know which way was up, which way to kick and pull. The sharp, hidden rocks, scraping his chest. All he could see was white, salty water, all around him. His lungs were going to burst.
And then darkness. He was lying in his wife’s arms. This wasn’t right, it couldn’t be, he knew. But still-he could feel her warmth. Her hair was on his face, and his chest, and he could see the dappled light as it shone through the trees, falling on her face. Oh, her face. Eyes, full of mystery and lightness. Skin dark and smooth, lips full and soft and warm. She smiled at him, and her eyes were full of compassion and warmth and a certain softness. It was true, he thought. If someone loved you, you could see it in their eyes, in the way that they looked at you. And then his mother was calling his name, his real name, and he knew that this wasn’t real. But she was there next to him, saying get up lazy fool, and he knew this was exactly what she would say. There’s meat on the fire, kangaroo tail, come and eat. She was wiry and fierce, and she could sing you, that’s what they said. The white folks would say curse you. That’s how strong she was-she could make the next spear on the hunt miss the kangaroo and double back and somehow hit you, or make the water that you drank cause you to piss and shit out all of your strength. She was singing now, a low hum as she bent over the campfire, scraping back the coals, finding the tail she had buried there, in the perfect place, not too hot, not too cold. He could make out the words, in language, of course-she had refused to learn the white man’s tongue-and it was a song he had never heard before. He could hear the tune of it, hear each word and the whole meaning, as his wife watched him, sitting in the shade. And this wasn’t right, it couldn’t be, because both of these women were dead, he knew it, and he also knew that he couldn’t bear to wake from this dream.
He was lying on the sand. The sun, half gone now, over the horizon, shed the palest of warmth on his skin. There was blood on his chest, his arms, on the pure, achingly white sand. The last bit of warmth from his cold, cold body was being pulled away from him, into the cool wet sand. He resisted, pushing himself up, crawling up the beach to the dark granite rocks, hard and unyielding, but still warm, even as the sun glided behind the horizon, behind the very rock he was lying on. He felt around his neck-somewhere in the surf, he had lost the flannel shirt, and the flint tied in oilcloth. The wind was picking up. It was an effort, still, to breathe. He needed to find shelter. In the half light, he picked himself up, and walked towards the sandy cliffs at the edge of the beach. His throat still burned, and suddenly he ran towards the bush-there were pools of brackish water on the ground, but slowly seeping from the sandstone was pure, fresh water. Boxer drank his fill, wishing he had a canteen with him to collect the water. No matter. He could always come back here. He climbed up the hill, into the bush. It would be easy, from here, to find shelter for the night, and tomorrow, he could find food. It wasn’t far to the settlement. Somehow, he could still hear the words that his mother had sung over the coals, in his head. The song echoed in his mind, and as he climbed, he hummed the tune to himself.
“What happened to him?” I am lying on my towel on the deck of the boat. The sea breeze washes over my skin, and I run soft fingers up his arm.
“To Boxer. The man they named the island for. You know, the one they dumped out here.”
“Oh him. Ha, funny thing that. They dumped him out here on the island, and two weeks later, what do you know? He walked back into town. Angry, I guess. But that’s all of the story that I know.”