The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell

Zillah Bethell has penned a spell-binding new middle grade novel set against the beautifully-woven backdrop of her childhood home of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea. The Shark Caller is an astonishing story of friendship, forgiveness and bravery which fellow children’s author Sophie Anderson describes as “magnificent and beautiful.”  

Zillah writes exclusively for the FCBG blog about the time a missionary, Mr Julian, stayed in her village in Papua New Guinea for a while.

THE SOUL HUNTER

I remember the time a missionary stayed with us for a while in the village. His name was Mr Julian and he was Lutheran, I think, from Germany. He wore a white linen suit and he had this kind of white linen hair and he carried a black bible in his pocket.

“Wantim know word of God?” he would bellow at us suddenly from behind a sago palm. “Wantim know Jesus?”

“Do you know Jesus?” he asked my brother once and my brother (so the story goes) said, “No, I don’t know him but I think he met my cousin!”

Mr Julian would sit in his hut, concussing mosquitoes with an egg whisk. It didn’t seem to work because he was always scratching himself and the bites on his leg got so infected he began to hobble. His suit became more and more crumpled till in the end he cut it into a kind of shorts and waistcoat affair. To my knowledge he’d been a fighter pilot, a psychologist and a fertiliser expert for the sugar plantations round Moresby where he’d been known affectionately as Mr Shit!

“He’s come to hunt our souls and our insects,” Aunt Marley whispered to me and I laughed because I didn’t believe her though it turned out to be true. He was like some ancient Victorian collecting specimens to send back home to his wardian case and wunderkammer.

“Where’s the best place to find a Hercules moth?” he’d ask us. “A turquoise beetle? A Birdwing butterfly?”

Even then we must have known that these beautiful creatures were destined for a sticky end in formaldehyde or under glass because we always shrugged or shook our heads. Sometimes I saw him striding through the bush with a butterfly net made out of bamboo sticks and curtains.

“Without a hat,” my aunt would tut, and he would return hours later as red as a paw-paw and half dead with the heat. Then he’d wash his suit in the sea, standing in some kind of knitted undergarment!

We sat patiently through his sermons on heaven and hell, not caring or understanding, sifting sand through our fingers until the final Amen, when we’d leap to our feet, waiting for him to bring out his radio-controlled aeroplane. Oh, that was a thing of wonder to us! How we loved to see that little red plane soar over the azure seas. Many times it crashed into the waves and we raced to save it from a watery death; or it got stuck on the reef and we prised it away from a sea urchin or sharp coral, careful not to cut our feet. Miraculously it survived, drying out like a starfish till its next big flight.

He also had a magic picture he kept rolled up in a bamboo tube. It looked like a scrawl of charcoal.

“Is it a duck or a rabbit?” he’d ask.

Considering none of us had ever seen a duck or a rabbit, we simply chanted Duck! Rabbit! Duck! Rabbit! Or Today a Duck

And he’d smile and throw raisins from his pocket onto the sand for us to peck at like chickens.

But the thing I liked best about Mr Julian was his singing. At night he’d sit with us around the fire and sing with his autoharp. He sang a song called Stewball and it went like this:

Oh Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine

He never drank water, he always drank wine,

His bridle was silver, his mane it was gold

And the worth of his saddle has never been told

I sat agog at this song about a horse who drank wine and beat all the other horses in the races. He also sang a hymn called The Old Rugged Cross and though I didn’t understand the words, I found it very beautiful.

One day, Mr Julian left. I don’t remember how exactly or why. Maybe he swam away. Or walked. Or took a ride on a trade boat. All I know is that he was there and then he wasn’t. He left behind his radio-controlled plane. Of course we flew it. Flew it till the battery died and it sank forever. “Mr Julian’s plane has gone,” I told my aunt, sobbing.

I don’t know if his magic picture is still there. Maybe people look at it and wonder if it’s a duck or a rabbit. Maybe they think it’s a charcoal scrawl by a man who came to hunt insects and souls.

There’s a postscript to this story. A couple of years ago I had to attend a funeral of an old Australian friend in Liverpool. It was a beautiful service and as I turned the service sheet to the last hymn, I saw with shock that it was The Old Rugged Cross. As I started to sing, time skipped and skedaddled, and I was back in the firelight, under the stars with my family and friends, with Mr Julian and his autoharp; amazed and humbled by the invisible threads connecting us all through time and space.

Usborne have produced some lovely resources to accompany this book https://usborne.com/gb/quicklinks/quicklink/the-shark-caller

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