Wavelets, halved logs, dragon symbols, ichor, bloody hooks, dialectical vowels, wild bivalves, the Gulf of Georgia, thurifers, crucifers, bacon fat, incredulous cows, bullfish & the innocent altar boy.
Wavelets, halved logs, dragon symbols, ichor, bloody hooks, dialectical vowels, wild bivalves, the Gulf of Georgia, thurifers, crucifers, bacon fat, incredulous cows, bullfish & the innocent altar boy.
Feeding the Bullfish
On the sunny afternoons when it’s a little cool for swimming, I lie on the dock, the water bobbing and sloshing beneath the splintery boards of its surface, and feed the bullfish. The process is simple; I have learned it from my sister, maven of choosing the right mussel, expert at crushing it under a heel without cutting her foot, exemplar of lying still, arm floating in the cold water, palm upraised with the crushed mollusk cradled, saint of patience who waits for the pug-nosed, big-headed, whiskery fish to dart in and tug at the floating bits, the revealed mystery of the mussel’s flesh. I spread my cotton T-shirt out flat and feel the cracks between the decking against my ribs. I rest my head, Buddha-like, on one arm, while the baited arm rests in the water. I keep my hand in the shadow of the dock so that, mysteriously, I can see through the surface, can see the green glow of the sunlight beneath the shining little waves, can watch the anemones spread their tendrils, the barnacles flick a feathery tongue through the saltwater, can observe all that eats and is eaten in the narrow shady realm six inches off the dock’s underlying structure of cabled logs. The avowed purpose of the afternoon is to feed bullfish, a goal whose attainment is measured in the number and size of those who slick across my palm or nestle firmly in the webbing between my fingers or succeed in pulling the mussel loose of its shell to fall, beleaguered by squadrons of fish that chase it spiraling down into the realm of the perch that shoot out from the dock’s shadow and return with a flash.
I am not afraid of the spider crab, am not afraid, only startled. Others shriek and lose their bait, but I do so only out of surprise. He is smaller than he appears, shell covered in seaweed bits and spines and whatever he can use to hide his hideous self. So he moves quickly, swinging up from the dark to clamber over mussels and barnacles and patches of bare wood to claw across my palm and take what I’m offering. I am not afraid of his spherical midsection, his three-kneed legs, his locomotion of wrongness, which is crab-wise not at all. I prove my lack of fear by my very presence on the dock, where alone, unsupervised, I put my hand into his realm and watch for him to make his appearance. I am not not hoping he will show, not exactly.
One of my earliest memories of the ocean comes to me whenever I look down the shafts of light into the murk of green. On a cloudy summer afternoon when I was five or six, I sat in an inner tube and paddled in ineffectual circles. It seemed to me that my mother was allowing me to paddle out to a great depth, much farther than I would usually swim myself. My brother poled the raft he loved, a giant log halved and the halves joined into a massive catamaran with double wedge-shaped prows. Over the years, the raft will lose buoyancy, grow waterlogged, and will float along under the surface, creating the illusion that three or four laughing children are sliding along the water without support. That summer it still rode high, even with all the children we could cram onto its surface; my brother liked to poke around in the shallows, force it up the creek that empties out by the wharf. He was close, just the other side of the dock, by the tied-up logs, but I still felt very alone out in the dark water, at the mercy of the little waves and wind. I liked, however, to look through the hole in the inner tube, where the shadowed surface lost its reflective mask and the water seemed to glow. In this instance, I began to cry as quietly as possible while huge fish nibbled at my tiny wrinkled toes. They could have been salmon jacks, I suppose, but were probably just perch. It hurt when they lunged in for a taste, though they never broke the skin, but what terrified me was the realization that they were all around me in the water, unseen just a foot or two below the undulating waves. My mother called my brother over to get me and I shivered on the beach for a long time.
It smelled incredible, full of smoke and salt and a fishy smell I wasn’t sure I would enjoy, like someone had barbequed the ocean.
My face is inches from the water; when a small boat whines by, way out in the bay, the three-inch wavelet remnants of its wake wet my chin and cheek. I don’t move, except to stroke with my tremulous thumb the backs of the bullfish resting in my palm, or to switch the finger holding down the broken mussel, leaking its cloudy brine into the water. The sun is a hand pressing down on my back, the dock a wooden palm pushing up against my ribs. My eyes close and I listen to the water sounds, the rattle of pebbles on shore in the waves, the lunk-lunk of the water trapped beneath the dock, the slow creaking of chains between dock floats. This isn’t sleep, but something as perfect, a state of mind worn smooth as green glass, or a lozenge, translucent, unyielding, complete. My eyes snap open when I feel the crab clamber into my palm, its claws gripping with surprising strength. What I see doesn’t jibe with the sensation in my hand, as if I’m watching a television reenactment of the event. Having floated nearly weightlessly in cool water for forty minutes, graced only by tiny fish the size of my pinky who rest as easily as light or tug at the mussel with comically minuscule fury, the spider crab feels massive, heavy, like something from the deep seizing my hand to pull me in. What I see is a tiny creature, really, his midsection smaller than a golf ball. His size is all the illusion of his spindly, far-flung legs. His front legs have pincers like tiny sewing shears, not the usual cruel pruner pincers of the shore crabs and red-rock and Dungeness. I examine the object of fear coolly, without admiration or affection, but with what I can muster of detachment.
When he pinches a crease at the base of my thumb, I jerk my hand involuntarily. He tumbles loose, legs spread wide, falling in slow motion, slower than the mussel that precedes him into the dark. I am wishing a farewell to him, misunderstood, unfrightening symbol of the dragon in the water, of childhood fears, when a dark shape glides out from the dock’s shadow, seizes him in its piscine jaws and turns neatly back to its domain in the dark.
Carolyn always has earaches, the kind that makes a child moan and rock and cry. One summer they devil her, turn the sunlight pale as milk and her eyes wide. She can’t sleep, even in her much-coveted real bed in the cabin’s main room, where the wood stove burns down at night with its crackling and smoky smell and she can have the light of the kerosene lantern to read by. Her hair, never curly nor wavy, grows lank and bleaches in the sun. She isn’t allowed to swim, and cries on the bleached wood of the dock for hours on end. She whines that something is moving around in there, that it hurts, that she can’t stand it. She wails. We ignore her as best we can, and our best is pretty good.
One night we are alone with the Bocotts’ youngest daughter, the big happy girl whose accent seems even thicker than her parents’ because she uses a teenage vocabulary. She sounds like a British hoodlum when she turns the light down and tells the story of the hook. We’ve all heard the story before, but not in Canada, and not in a cabin on an island, where the wind knocks tree branches against the roof and the night’s rain taps the glass and the kettle murmurs on the back of the stove. We’ve never heard it in Canadian either, where hook sounds like it has extra ooh in it, and the kids in the car are fooking as well, right on shedule, the whole story A to Zed in Canadian, bet yur mum. It’s creepy, too, how she steals cigarettes and invents new graphic details to the story, lights them from the top of the lantern chimney and leers over the spiraling smoke.
“So he’s really banging her, you know, got her ankles behind her neck and she’s screaming, eh? She’s bloody loving it and begging for it up her ass next, eh?” Every sentence is a question with no safe answer. Joseph, just a few years her junior, squirms in his seat. I jump when something scrapes on the roof. It’s a great relief when the girl speeds off in the car, the bloody hook dangling from the handle, though in this version the boyfriend also ends up dangling from the tree they have parked beneath. The babysitter turns toward the window and cuts her eyes at us across the table. The kettle is almost boiling for tea, or hot Ovaltine, or whatever is next. Carolyn whimpers on her bed, and the dog at her feet raises his head to look at her with concern. I hate that she gets to sleep with the dog at her feet. I hate the dog for his disloyal refusal to sleep on my cot out on the cold porch.
I am wishing a farewell to him, misunderstood, unfrightening symbol of the dragon in the water, of childhood fears, when a dark shape glides out from the dock’s shadow, seizes him in its piscine jaws and turns neatly back to its domain in the dark.
“Her earache, eh? Still bothering her, eh? Funny, I knew a girl who had an earache like that. No, really. And you know what? There was something in there. Something in there, eh? I’m fooking serious about this.” And she seems it, not just a crafty teen putting a scare into us on a stormy night when her parents are out with our parents getting smashed on scotch at the marina bar across the bay, but a scared teenager. She pulls a hard drag on her cigarette. “Isn’t that what she’s saying too? Something moving in there? Jeesus.”
“What was it?” asks Joseph from beside the stove, where he’s adding yet more wood though it’s already toasty. With the firebox door open there’s a rush of ruddy light spilling out on us at the table, then he shuts the iron door and we’re back in the lamplight’s circle. “What was in her ear?”
“Carpenter ant, can you fooking believe it? Crawled in there, eh, and wouldn’t come out.”
“Jesus,” he says.
“Jesus,” I say, and he gives me the look that says not to copy.
“What did they do?”
“Hot oil treatment. Smothered it and then drained it out. But it was too late. She lost her hearing in that ear. And you know what else? She went mad. Totally fooking crazy, eh? Bonkers from it scratching and chewing— Oh God, did you see that!” Her chair scrapes as she stands, hand halfway to her mouth already. With her other shaking finger she points to Carolyn, whose face is toward the wall, points to the visible ear.
I don’t see it, I swear, couldn’t have seen it, because it’s a joke, a ruse, a trick to scare us after all. But I do see it, in memory’s impossible close-up, the black glossy head noselessly nosing up over the pink whorls of Carolyn’s inflamed ear, its antennae tapping the faintest of tattoos before it turns and goes back inside to the tender, moist hollows where it blunders and chews. Somehow I see it, though it can’t be there. When they come home, my father singing a song and my mother shushing their way up the muddy path, they find me crying in my sleeping bag, crying for fear of madness chewing its way into us all like a whispered secret, unforgettable.
Devils on Horseback
The first oyster I ate came wrapped in bacon. It had been skewered and roasted over an open fire. I was eight. The oyster was probably three, having the luck to be formed by freely released oyster gametes that met by chance in the shifting cold currents of the Pacific, having swum through the hostile waters of jellyfish tentacles and filter-feeding marine life as a spat for a season, having precipitated out onto a rocky outcropping a few feet below the low-tide mark and stuck fast to the bones of the earth, where it grew on whatever happened by until it measured perhaps three inches in length in the shell—just a baby, really—waiting for my father to wade out into the still waters of an evening low tide and cut it loose with his knife. In the happier days of their marriage, this ritual of my parents seemed particularly sacred. Mom waited perched on a log, arms wrapped around her knees, a cold beer in her hand catching the light of sunset in its brown glass, Dad in his ragged cutoffs, his shirtless back and sandaled feet, up to his thighs in the calm cold sea, filling a bucket with wild oysters he collected. Back at the cabin, as the sun got low, my brother and I would build a campfire while our parents and friends drank scotch and shucked oysters (cutting their hands often while wrestling with the bony shells and sharp knife, swearing profusely when the salt of the oyster stung a new laceration, talking their incomprehensible adult talk so full of jokes we weren’t meant to follow). My brother, always fascinated by all things incendiary, reliably created a frightening blaze that, until we were forced to let it die down, competed with the last glow in the western sky, made the dog bark at the popping wood, and wilted maple leaves from the ancient tree whose lower branches encroached on the fire pit.
In summer, in British Columbia, the sun stays up late, so it must have been past nine or nine thirty when my mother handed me my first oyster. It was not quite full dark, but dim enough that it was hard to see exactly what I was pulling off the skewer. It smelled incredible, full of smoke and salt and a fishy smell I wasn’t sure I would enjoy, like someone had barbequed the ocean. As I held it, the bacon was still hot and slick with rendered fat, dark from the flames. What I remember of the taste: chewy, sweet, salty, fishy, smoky and hot. Delicious. I had six before my parents cut me off and switched me over to hot dogs and corn. Though we kids could go to the edge of the pasture where the cows watched us with incredulity, or throw oyster shells off the cliff to the water or make the frightening trip together back to the outhouse’s reek in the woods, we mostly stayed around the fire, waiting for the singing and the marshmallows and the enameled kettle that produced piping hot chocolate as the evening chill came on. We had to wait, of course, while the real oyster-eating went on. From the shell, brimming with fresh ichor, no adulteration save lemon, salt, horseradish or Tabasco, the oysters went down the gullets of my parents and their friends. In my memory, the men were bearded, reddened and shadowed by firelight. The oysters dripped on their chins as they slurped. Everyone seemed to smoke a pipe or a cigarette, and exclaim their satisfaction with the cold, fresh oysters, so recently hauled up from the water. My brother, four years older and a big fan of soft-boiled eggs and other squishy things, would stand with his hands clasped behind his back—the innocent altar boy—and beg for one. He would chew his and, if no one caught him, stick out his shellfish-covered tongue at my sister and me before swallowing the grey-black mess down with audible gulps. “Tastes like snot!” he would whisper sotto voce, and then beg for another.
The sun is a hand pressing down on my back, the dock a wooden palm pushing up against my ribs.
It is with great sadness that I recount now how I, like so many children, foreswore my promising start as a gourmand. How I, like all the others my parents had hoped I would not become, came to despise squash, peas, spinach, artichokes, fish, cooked tomatoes, peppers, crab, the crusts of bread, garlic, uncooked tomatoes (unless sliced thick and coated with white sugar like some ultramodern vegetarian dessert) and, of course, oysters. No joining in the ritual of looking for the tiny irregular pearls and saving them in a used brown prescription bottle. No communion of raised lemon and shellfish, no chorus of gustatory sighs, no shared struggle to shuck the stubborn stony shells apart and reveal the unlikely and mysterious goodness within. Yucky, I said, and perhaps thought. When is a child’s taste real and when is it posture? From whom did I learn that I was not expected to like oysters as a child, that they were an “adult” food? How did it happen that, after a magical time filled with discoveries at table, I became a strictly traditional eater for the second half of my childhood?
It came to pass, in any case, that at eighteen I shared a dozen oysters on the half shell with my father, at Dan and Louis’ Oyster Bar just off Burnside in downtown Portland, Oregon. In those days, the neighborhood and the restaurant seemed dark and dingy. We met there after a long day of work for him one winter night. The room was windowless and hazy with tobacco smoke, which competed with the smell of frying batter from the kitchen. My parents had been divorced for six years. My father’s health was declining. He drank non-alcoholic beer in a green bottle. The oysters were larger and more tired looking, and somehow seemed embarrassed to be garnished with parsley on a platter, as if the “presentation” heightened their sense of innate ugliness. I had never eaten a raw oyster, nor a cooked one, since the age of ten.
The conversation buzzed on around us. The clink of cutlery and china, the guffaws of the waitress, continued in the background. My father held a burning cigarette in his right hand and said nothing, waiting to let me choose my mollusk. I raised it to my nose. Over the oyster, my father’s eyes swam in their blue, sad and tired. I added a squirt of lemon from the slice I pulled from the tiny metal bowl. A dollop of horseradish from the frilled paper cup, keeping in mind my father’s previous advice about not using the tartar sauce or the cocktail sauce—those abominations. When I ate the oyster, salty, cold, fresh, sour from the lemon and spice, with its smell of the ocean, I regretted so much all that I had missed.
Sundays back home are workdays for us all. I am acolyte, or boat boy with my little cup of incense for the thurifer, or treble in the choir, or a helper in the setup of the coffee hour. Joseph and Carolyn take turns as thurifers and crucifers, sing, even read a lesson once in a while. Mom plays the organ, and Dad is out of the house in the first hours of morning, returning only after the eight o’clock, the ten o’clock, coffee hour, and rounds to housebound parishioners and the sick in hospital, which sometimes takes until the early evening. The services are high church, solemn and ornamented, perfumed, vested, scripted, dressed up, formal in every sense. Participation is passive or responsive, but always comfortably social; you never say anything alone, except to whisper a prayer in the quiet of individual intercessions during the prayers of the people. You march in step.
Sundays on Pender depend on the tide, the weather, how late we were up on Saturday. Some Sundays start with buckets and shovels, out catching the low tide and digging for clams in the muck. Dad digs a hole that slowly fills with water, and you paddle around in the sand, pulling cockles and butter clams and geoducks, which we don’t keep, from the liquefying silt that runs through your fingers. You walk handfuls down to the water’s edge, wade out a few feet to rinse them in the clean saltwater before putting them in the bucket. Back at the cabin, the bucket sits in the shade of the back porch, and we sprinkle the surface of the water with cornmeal the clams eat with their enormous rubbery feet, replacing the muck in their bellies with sweet corn.
Some Sundays we sleep late and wake to find one or another of us has gotten up early and collected twigs for the fire, or has started sourdough biscuits, or has gone for a walk to see what birds are on the quiet shore. Sometimes I am the early one, and go to the stink of the outhouse, then wash my hands, then wake the family by pumping the water from the old well behind the kitchen, which sings a squeaky, rusty song that ends in a thick stream of cold water rushing into the buckets with a faint sulfurous smell. Sometimes I am the early one, and I go looking for snakes sunning themselves or for the cows in the meadow, and hours go by before my sister comes down to the dock to tell me it’s time for breakfast and I haven’t pumped the water and I’m in trouble. In these ways, Sundays on Pender are like all days on Pender: quiet, unplanned, provisional, held together by the shared goals of finding good food and water and carving out time in the afternoon for a nap or a book.
But then the sermon comes, which isn’t a sermon. It’s an inquisition, an exam we are doomed to flunk.
But lots of Sundays have church in them, of a kind new to us. We go down to the little clearing by the cliff overlooking the harbor, all of us, and sit in the grass, which is sometimes still wet with dew, or other times is dry and hot from the late-morning sun. There, in a loose circle, sharing two red-leather prayer books, we go through the office, taking turns with the readings, singing hymns a cappella from the one hymnal, and are intermittently reprimanded for becoming distracted by bugs or dandelions, or boats motoring across the harbor in the distance. My mother sits on her heels, but the rest of us, including Dad, sprawl or hug our knees or sit however feels most comfortable. Everything about the early part of the service goes easily.
But this is not a joyous or even pleasant occasion by the end of the liturgy of the word. Dad has his eyes on us, his disappointments, and he closes his bleary eyes in frustration when we don’t know the prayers or fail to pay attention. During the readings, I usually stare into space or the grass or the woods; unless I’m reading, it’s just story time. If I’m reading, it’s an agony of corrected pronunciation and frequent interruptions for definitions of words I can’t define. But then the sermon comes, which isn’t a sermon. It’s an inquisition, an exam we are doomed to flunk.
“But what’s the connection between the epistle and the parable we read?” I can feel him looking at us, but we all stare at the ground.
“Christopher Sean? What connection can you see? Were you listening to the epistle? Do you need to read it again?” He hands the good book over and I scan through the swimming lines of tiny print and numbers. Joseph groans and Dad snaps his fingers at him in warning. Having left my glasses up at the cabin, I have to hold the text right up to my nose, and then be told to speak up.
The sensation is bewildering. At church, we are the in-crowd, the ones with the answers in Vacation Bible School, the favored acolytes, the kids who get away with murder. Here we have to rely on delays, obstructionist attitudes, feigned disinterest, anything to play for time while we figure out the answers. He seems surprised every time to find that his children know nothing about scripture and can engage in only the most limited exegetical analysis. But he is relentless, forcing us to know every word and think, think on a Sunday, about how they go together. His take on the parable of the sower is horrifying. Yes, it’s about love and the good news in part, but is that all they taught you to parrot in Sunday school? Think about the seed, cast broadside by an uncareful hand, sown on rocks and among weeds and where the birds can eat it. This is the world of an inhuman generosity, a fecundity that above all emphasizes how cheap life and love is. If the sower is God, he is pouring life on all surfaces that it might die young, except for the lucky, except for the few who get a decent chance to make it to the harvest. It’s a warning, and a stark reminder of the stakes. He stops, asks us to look around and think about it for a minute, and we look at all the trees, the meadow grass being munched by the cows, the ruffled surface of the ocean holding so many hungry mouths, the rocks with their bands of mussels and barnacles, and, above that, gull-spattered stone otherwise bare.
At communion, we kneel, and Dad opens up the communion set with its tiny silver jars for the host and the wine nestled in slots of purple velvet. He blesses us gently while he gives us bread and wine, and we conclude the service chastened, quietly reading our prayers together. The rest of the day spins out before us, but often we tiptoe through it, feeling we’ve misunderstood something important, carrying with us questions that linger until dinnertime, when we steam the clams and dip them in butter, when we break open the steaming biscuits, when we crunch through a salad of dandelion greens and lemon, when we kids lug the bucket of shells down to the cliff and, one by one, send them spinning off into the air to be chased by gulls and bats as they soar out over the sunset water and fall into the waves.
Cris Harris teaches writing and experiential education at an independent school outside Cleveland, Ohio, and spends his summers growing tomatoes and restoring a turn-of-the-century barn. His essays and poems have recently appeared in Alice Blue Review, Proximity Magazine, New South, Rogue Agent, Cleaver and The New Engagement and are forthcoming at Cobalt Review and Post Road Magazine.
Lead image: David Anderson