Saturday, July 12, 2008

Four Takes on the Texas Coast

A note of explanation: This story, like several others, for many years had a home on a University of Texas computer which very recently was taken out of service, and without much warning. So in the next few days I will be uploading to this blog the various stories (non-fiction, more or less) that I previously had on the deceased server.

I.

The Palauans.

No one ever knew why they came to El Paso. Palau was then a U.S. dependency of some kind, and since the government paid for their schooling presumably they could have gone anywhere.

The Palauans had come to El Paso to study "construction trades" at El Paso Community College. Non-stop from Honolulu, they had dropped down out of the sky into the neon truckstop sleaziness of the desert city, never before having left their volcanic coral-rimmed islands in their lives, and my wife's ex-husband Odin, who had an affinity for displaced persons, took them out to his estancia to live. Odin was at that time teaching at El Paso Community College and living in a circular adobe house which he had built with his own hands in El Paso's Lower Valley down near Socorro. There the Palauans dwelled, outdoors by preference, on cots in the yard of the eccentric barnyard villa, bare chested in the hallucinatory heat with Odin's goats and geese and a guy who lived in a large hole in the hardpan yard, a man whose job in the army was to interrogate Vietnamese prisoners and who had become maddened with a need to excavate and had with Odin's permission dug himself a room below the ground, then another, deeper, and shored them up, with timbers, like a mine shaft, and had taken up residence there, still digging, a kind of troll with the goats trampling on his roof and the Palauans barbecuing chickens in the blinding light above his burrow. One year Odin lost a couple of goats, though happily no Micronesians, to a mountain lion that came down out of the Huecos.

They got their brackish water from a hand pump--Odin had no electricity at the time--and cooked their food on spits over a big communal fire pit. They had a roofless caracole adobe outhouse. This was what the Palauans thought America was like.

In El Paso they would sneak their canoe into the Franklin Canal, the main acequia that carried most of the water of the Rio Grande, and pole along spearing bullfrogs by flashlight, astonishing the local Mexicans who happened to see the frog-hunters in the reed-grown aqueduct.

Finally, when they had gotten desperately nostalgic for the sea, Odin had taken them down to the Texas Gulf Coast at Corpus Christi where they rented a boat and went fishing. They used flounder gigs to fish. They speared a hundred fish among them in the space of a couple of hours in the muddy tidal strands of the back bays between Padre Island and the mainland rushes of the King Ranch, and then took the fish back to their tarpaulin lean-to camp in the sand dunes and ate their catch, perhaps raw, perhaps cooked--I don't know--and with distended bellies enjoyed real happiness for the first time since getting on the plane to El Paso.

The second time they went to the coast I went too, this time to Mustang Island. The Palauans slept on the beach, really fierce looking dark people with South Sea cannibal hair styles, with spears. They had constructed nine-foot traditional Palauan spears since their previous trip. Their method was to wade out into the shallow flats and chase the fish. They would spy a school of fish, somehow, maybe from ripples on the water, and approach stealthily as close as possible and then suddenly run forward in the foot-deep water howling demoniacally, and hurl their spears 20 or 30 feet at the moving shadows. By the end of a morning they had a large assortment of speared fish overflowing a bushel basket in the sand at the water's edge.

The hook and line fishermen were aghast at the sight. "If it ain't against the law" one of them told me, "it sure as hell ought to be."

II.

In 1528 on the morning of November 6 by the Julian Calendar, Cabeza de Vaca, the Treasurer of the Narvaez expedition, coasting in an unseaworthy open boat made of materials salvaged from the ruin of Narvaez's march inland in Florida, crowded with men dying of hunger, thirst, scurvy, malaria, and hypothermia, landed in the surf of an unknown coast against a stiff cold wind out of the north. The unknown coast was Texas. They were trying to reach a place called Panuco, in Mexico, and did not come ashore by choice. They were too sick and exhausted to row any more, and they had run out of water. Narvaez, in another boat with more water, had abandoned them. The heavy seas brought them in and the surf pitchpoled the boat, dumping the men into the churning and hissing froth of the backwash. The booming line of breakers marched against the dunes that arced in a long curve west and south. All the men got ashore. The strongest of them, Oviedo, was sent to climb a tree growing near the dunes, to observe the lie of the land. "We are on an island," he said, when he came down from the tree.

Oviedo was then sent to explore beyond the sand hills, and found a settlement of friendly Indians, who followed him back to the beach. They slipped from behind their weedy dunes, a procession of a hundred bowmen with cane plugs in their ears, bringing fish and edible roots of some kind, and a gift of arrows. No one knows why they brought the Spaniards gifts. "So in return we gave them trinkets and bells," said Cabeza de Vaca. The Spaniards rested a day, slaked their thirst from puddles of rainwater, and loaded their boat, put their clothes in the boat to launch it, pushed the prow into the surf and pulled hard out through the breakers a distance of two crossbow shots, far enough that three of them drowned when a wave broke over the bow and the boat broached-to. The heavy curl of the surf tumbled the boat and broke it apart and smashed the men who clung to it. The survivors were cast ashore half-awash, freezing and naked. They found live coals in the ashes of the fire they had left in the dunes, and threw grass and sticks into it and huddled around it. When the wind died down in the evening, from the lagoon side of the island, the Karankawa bonepickers came back and stared amazed at the transformation, at these deathly men, saltbearded Spaniards with their skin flayed raw with sunburn and sand and chilblains. The Karankawas sat down and cried at the sight. They built big fires along the path to their huts, and when the Spaniards were safely in their village and warm, the Indians put on an all-night feast and dance in celebration of the deliverance from the sea of these strange pale men, "Though for us there was no joy, festivity nor sleep, waiting to see if they would kill us," said Cabeza de Vaca.

But the Indians treated them well. Soon the castaways got word that another of Narvaez's boats had foundered in the surf of the same island a few miles away. The survivors of that crew were living in the barren dunes. Both crews of Spaniards assembled and combined their salvaged planks and homemade nails and tried to rebuild a boat, but the only remaining boatwright died before it was finished. The new craft would not float, and they gave up on it. The four strongest men were then sent to walk to Panuco, in Mexico, a province governed by a presidio near present-day Tampico, and were never heard from again. Panuco obsessed the Spaniards. The name was always on their lips, and it ceased to mean anything except safety, refuge. What was Panuco? The northernmost outpost of the Spanish empire in New Spain, a small rivermouth garrison on the Gulf of Mexico, a cluster of wattle and daub jacals in the great expanse of thorny scrub of the northern Gulf lowlands. A river came out of the scrub and emptied into the sea. Somewhere upriver there were mountains. This much they knew of Panuco. None of them ever got there.

Cabeza de Vaca and some of his men went back to their friendly Indians. Others went various ways to live as best they could. Another spell of cold bad weather set in. Down the island there were five Spaniards slowly dying on the beach, and the living ate the dead until only one was left, and then he too died. "Since he was last, there was no one left to eat him," said Cabeza de Vaca. Cannibalism, if we are to believe Cabeza de Vaca, was unheard of among the Indians and caused them great unease when they found out about it. Curiously, three hundred years later the Indians of the Texas coast were notorious for eating human flesh.

Of about 80 men in the two boats all but 15 died within a few months. The Indians began to die also, probably on account of new diseases the Spanish had brought. The Indians were no fools, and saw the connection, and in fact debated whether to kill all the newcomers to rid themselves of pestilence, but in an excess of logic an Indian elder convinced the other Indians that the white men could not have brought such a plague: if they were powerful enough to bring it, they would not die of it themselves.

The Spaniards called this place Malhado, Bad Luck Island. The nomadic Indians came there in the winter to dig some kind of tuber--no one now knows what it was--from the baywater shallows. Malhado Island was one of the barrier islands of the Texas coast, most likely Galveston.

They eventually met up with a few survivors of Narvaez's boat and learned something of Narvaez's fate. Narvaez had landed on a calm shore farther down the Texas coast but had refused to leave his barely-seaworthy craft. He put his men out on the beach, where they slept. In the morning the boat, and Narvaez, were gone. Narvaez had rowed away in the night. We know he failed to reach Panuco. Had the castaways known that it might have eased their indignation. Somewhere offshore, sharks hung in the green Gulf water, turned and faced into the taste of prey the way weathervanes face the wind. Somewhere water slapped on rotting wood, and gleaming salt winds blew away the foam. Narvaez vanished without a trace.

Over the years the Spaniards drifted apart, died, and were killed. Finally there were four, including Andres Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and Esteban, Castillo's black slave. All were now themselves slaves of the Indians except Cabeza de Vaca, who traveled up and down the coast trading shells for flint, arrows and face paint. Like the Indians, they ate oysters, when they could get them, and crabs, and fish, and deer, and, three times in all those years, buffalo. They ate seaweed. They ate lizards, snakes, and rodents, and probably the "very large spiders" the Indians ate.

They lived naked as the Indians, staring over the mirages of the sheetglare neaptide lagoons, their brows shining with trickling sweat beads as the summer sun pumped water vapor out of the sea. Over the lagoons pelican wingdips rode reflections in the sunset shallows, tern-plummets broke the sky into circles. The Spanish survivors saw their days gleam and fuse, and they gnawed roots and thin meat, watching the lightning fork and branch over the tide flats where the mealy roots grew, rainfronts riffling the water. They clawed up the back-bay oysters in the winter and picked dewberries from among the brambles in the spring. The mosquitoes swarmed black and numberless, and men lived hidden in the smoke of fires of green wood, preferring to cough in the smoke till their lungs bled rather than go out in the clear air with its needles of pain. "It is the worst suffering I know of" said Cabeza de Vaca, who knew many kinds of suffering. Some years they traveled farther down the coast, down to near present-day Victoria and Rockport, to gather pecans in the fall. Every year, in the summers, they migrated west and south to sustain themselves on the fruit of the prickly pear cactus.

Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, Castillo, and Esteban lived on the Texas coast for 6 years. They survived on this rude provender but were sustained by the iron will and bitter faith of Spain. Then, deciding it was time to return or die, they walked away from the Indians they were with, disappeared into the thorned brush which draws blood when you push through it, and were quickly forgotten, like jetsam and driftage here one year, then leaving no clues like shadows of clouds or shorebirds on a beach. They began a long march, high careful steps of the emaciated, cleaving the air before them with the gestured cross. Always hungry. They ate cactus. They ate mesquite beans. They crossed the Rio Grande. Seeking to circle the hostile Indians of the seacoast thorn-deserts of Tamaulipas, they walked west into the hotter and drier Chihuahua desert, into the ruinous slag mountains where the sunsets glowed like a forge.

They began to heal the sick and acquired a following, a crowd of Indians walking on a quest we cannot imagine toward the sunset. Eventually there were hundreds. What did these Indians think, trekking toward the west with these strangers, in this horde moving through the desert? The Indians looted each new village they came to, and the newly dispossessed would then join the march in hopes of, what? Regaining the bushel of corn or mesquite beans they had lost? "We traveled through many peoples of a multitude of languages, too many to remember. The Indians always plundered those they came to, regaining what they had lost. Thus they were content." Picture in your mind this vast throng of diverse Indians walking through the desert toward the sunset, led by lean bearded men who healed in the name of the Jesus and the Virgin. Nothing like this had ever happened before, or has ever happened since.

Walking west and north they struck the Rio Grande again, at the place where it meets the Rio Conchos coming out of Mexico. The people there lived in dusty villages, and grew corn, and went on trips to the north to hunt the buffalo part of the year. Cabeza de Vaca and his band went upstream for several days, and then across toward the Pacific somewhere south of El Paso. They walked around the north end of the Sierra Madre Occidental, and saw green stones they took to be emeralds, and turquoise, and were told that these treasures were found in the north, in high mountains. There were cities there, in the north, with large houses, they were told. This, of course, was true. These baubles, which had come from the Pueblo Indians who traded them in exchange for parrot feathers from the south, grew in attractiveness as time passed, especially in the memory of Esteban, which eventually led him to return here, where he met his death in the desolate stronghold of what Coronado called Cibola, in New Mexico.

When they finally met up with other Spaniards, slave-hunters, near Culiacan on the Pacific coast of Mexico, the mounted men on their bony horses just stared at the naked man on foot who had hailed them in the rusty accents of Castile. At first they did not return his greeting, but sat still in their saddles under their tattering slaver's ensigns. "They stayed there staring at me a long time, thunderstruck, and neither spoke to me nor drew near to make an inquiry," Cabeza de Vaca said. Who can blame them? The Narvaez expedition, for which you will remember Cabeza de Vaca was the treasurer, had disappeared eight years before in Florida, 2000 miles away.

III.

In the summertime, four hundred and some-odd years later, when I was a boy, my grandfather Cummings would take off for a week or so to go fishing, and he and my grandmother would take me along, and sometimes my sister Linda, down to Rockport on the coast, hauling an old boat on a makeshift steel trailer welded together by my Uncle Norval. The trailer did not travel in a straight and docile path behind their ancient pickup, but had a life of its own, so we made the trip slowly, sometimes with caravans of angry vacationers in cars behind us, unable to pass, or frightened to.

We would camp out in a tent at a roadside picnic area. People could do that, and did, in those days. In back of the roadside park was a forest of oak trees. At Rockport the live-oaks grew right down to the water, and were stunted and deformed by the salt-spray. They had a sort of gnarled Japanese-garden look. I remember being aware of the beauty of the trees growing beside the bay water.

We would get up early in the morning, before sun-up, and eat breakfast, prepared on a Coleman stove. Then we would go down to the shrimpboat wharves and buy a pound of fresh shrimp for bait. Shrimp were cheap. We knew that some people, Cajuns perhaps, ate shrimp, but we used shrimp only as fishbait, the cost comparable to maybe that of a can of worms at a South Texas river bait stand farther inland. Nowadays, of course, the shrimp cost a lot more than the fish.

After getting our bait we would usually launch our boat, powered by a 5 horsepower outboard motor, at Goose Island State Park, and sputter it out a few hundred yards to some favorite rickety pilings, gray-weathered barnacled remains of piers long since destroyed by the sea. There we would begin fishing. We would pull the heads off the shrimp and throw the heads overboard to whet the appetites of the fish below, bait the hooks with the shrimp tails, and cast toward the sunrise, into the morning bay water, with our baitcasting rigs; then reel slowly in. Occasionally something would take the bait. Once in a great while we would catch a fish. We hoped to catch "trout", our name for the spotted weakfish, and we would keep gafftop and croakers and perch, if we caught them. All small perchlike fish were called "croakers" if they made croaking noises, otherwise they were deemed "perch." We rejected "hardheads," a catfish which had a stout, sharp dorsal spine. We knew from folk-knowledge that they were inedible. Gafftops, the other saltwater catfish, had longer and weaker dorsal fins and were considered delicious. We rejected exotica like sharks and dogfish and stingarees and eels and anything else we caught that looked strange. We fished for food.

If we got no bites bottom-fishing like this we would put a cork on the line and cast it out and watch the morning away for the bobble and disappearance of the float, followed by our exaggerated yank on the rod to take up enough slack to set the hook, but usually what happened was that the cork and gleaming empty hook shot out of the sea and over the boat, or into it. Occasionally we would land a fish this way too, the fish tumbling out of the sea in a high glittering arc into the boat and beating for a moment against the boat-bottom hull with the rhythms of a tap-dancer.

After we had run out of bait I would sometimes go swimming in the six-or-eight-foot deep water, clear enough to see the bottom sediments and seaweeds.

Then we would go back, winch the boat back onto the homemade trailer, and drive back to camp. We would have dinner about noontime, and my grandfather and grandmother would take naps on their army cots. I would walk out into the wilderness of scrub oak growing out of the Pleistocene beach sand behind the roadside park and hunt birds with a BB gun. Or I would just lie alone in the sand in the oak thicket as vaguely erotic pre-pubescent images of naked girls emerged from the woods, real as the hunting cries of the hawks. Alternatively I would dream of heroic military adventures. I remember hoping a new war would arise at the right time; I was aware that the Korean conflict might end before I was old enough to lead troops in battle.

In the afternoons we would go to the Copano Bay causeway, and fish off the rocks. Then we would go to the grocery store, and then back to the roadside park, where we would fry our fish, if we had any, and cook the rest of our supper, and as the sun went down we would light mosquito coils. Shortly after dark we would go to bed.

This trip was a highlight of my summer, for several years. But my grandparents took me fishing any time of the year, whenever they went, which was pretty often, on the Intracoastal canal, or at Port O'Connor or Seadrift. Seadrift was an ugly barren treeless little town with streets made of crushed oyster shells. We rarely caught fish there. The water was murky. Port O'Connor was a prettier town, where we fished off a long pier. We usually went fishing on the Intracoastal canal, which offered the closest access to the sea from where we lived. We would turn down a long shell road to reach it, and then we would walk up or down the canal for a mile or so, or if we had my grandfather's boat, drone slowly perhaps another mile in the wallowing and underpowered craft, and then we would fish, always with shrimp that we had bought at the shanty bait stand at the end of the shell road.

We would wake up a 3 or 4 in the morning in Victoria and drive in the dark past the DuPont plant where my father worked, leaving it behind us lit up in the distance like a ship, down to the coast 30 miles from town, where ideally we would be fishing at least an hour before the sun came up. The fish ceased to feed at mid-morning, or so we thought. We would wade out in the canal to where it dropped off deep, and there we would cast and cast till we ran out of bait. We never fished with artificial lures, except if we ran absolutely out of bait and the fish were biting, and even then we would prefer to have a perch or a hardhead, to cut up and use to bait our hooks.

Every once in a while a string of barges would come by, pushed by a tugboat. The barge string would draw down the water as it approached, and then create a small booming surf as it passed.

Behind us as far as the eye could see was rough coastal grass and sedge, marshy barrens that supported a few cows. In front of us was the canal, and on the opposite bank the artificial dunes of the spoil of the dredging. A few stunted bushes, some as high as a man, grew on the dunes.

Once, fishing on the canal, I stomped on a hardhead which had been flopping around after I caught it, to kill it so I could remove the hook, and the fish was suddenly stuck to the bottom of my shoe. I don't remember any pain, only surprise. I had driven the spine all the way through my foot. The wound got infected and I remember sitting in a doctor's office on Laurent Street in Victoria, listening to a couple of old ladies talk gloomily about illness and death. Not me, I remember thinking. Illness and death is for you.

For a while I had a pair of heavy rubber olive-drab-colored waders, a chest-high wading suit that enabled me to slosh out to 3-foot-deep water and keep my clothes dry, and I insisted on wearing them. If my grandfather's boat had ever capsized I would have sunk for good with this sea-anchor I had encased my body in. The waders were hot and uncomfortable but I knew that deeper water was where the bigger fish were, and since my grandfather always beached his boat to fish the canal because of the barge traffic, I believed my best chance at a really huge fish, the kind you see embalmed on the walls of tackle shops, lay with the waders, which got me within casting distance of the mysterious depths of the middle of the canal.

I was technique-oriented. I would get books on fishing, from the Victoria public library and pore over them. I would buy leaders and sinkers and swivels and hooks with my allowance, and I would painstakingly try to prepare my tackle according to the directions of the fishing books. But the swivels never worked right and the knots I tied always slipped or came loose. I cursed my fate as the son of a non-fisherman. I needed someone to show me the secrets. My grandparents were Oklahoma cane-pole fisherfolk, and had not the slightest interest in equipment; they fished with the meditative detachment of Zen masters, the way a few old black people still do today, and cared nothing for the fancy gear of sport fishermen.

The one time I remember that I did go fishing with my father was when I was 11. There was a McCulloch family reunion, I think, or at least a big gathering, at Port O'Connor. The first day my uncles and my grandfather McCulloch and my father rented a big old surplus World War II landing craft, one of these flat-bottom square-enders where the front gate would drop down to let out the troops to storm ashore at Normandy after the boat was driven aground. They rented this thing because of its capacity, not its seaworthiness, and all the men and boys in the family got in it, there must have been fifteen or twenty of us, and out into the back bay shallows we went. The idea was to land on some low islands in the bay and disperse a little and fish. But on our way back the wind had come up. There was a chop and the square end of the boat would smash the oncoming waves into a mighty explosion of saltwater and spume which would then cascade over everyone in the boat. We were drenched. We were utterly cold. I was enduring a trial with grown men. I was deeply pleased.

The following evening preparations were being made to go floundering; uncles were putting fuel in the lanterns and hefting the flounder gigs, and sighting down the shafts. In fishing for the flounder you use a spear, and walk through shallow water at night holding your lantern in one hand and the gig in the other, and when you see a flounder you stab it.

I had never been floundering. I assumed they were going to take me because they had taken me on the boat. When my father said, "Jimmy, you've got to stay here," I was utterly downcast and crestfallen. Stricken. I could hardly breathe, in my effort not to cry, an effort mandated by my dignity. I suppose they were concerned about sting rays, a hazard of floundering.

So that evening I stayed in front of the cabins where the women of the family were gathered, with my younger cousins, and listened to my Aunt Ruth tell some of the funniest stories I had ever heard in my life. I have no memory now of what the content of those stories might have been, though I remember an element of mimicry; probably she was making fun of the men out fishing. I was rolling around on the sand in the lantern light, gasping for breath. But it was insufficient solace.

IV.

The last time I visited that part of the Texas coast, I walked the crushed shell roads of a part of my childhood that still twisted over the ruined mud flats around Copano Bay among scrub live oaks, bearded with Spanish moss and contorted by the prevailing saltwinds into a permanent writhe. You could smell the tidal flats in the wind over the birdtrack runes in the low-tide mud.

At Dagger Point on the Blackjack Peninsula the bay water shimmered in the sun below the dense scrub forest of live oak and redbay trees. The trees grow on ancient sand dunes, remnants of a Pleistocene barrier island. The baywaters have eroded the base of the dunes. For half a century now the land has subsided as oil and fresh water are pumped from their various strata far below, and the shore has slowly sunk and retreated before the sea. The sands that might delay the erosion do not get to the bay anymore, because dams have plugged up the muddy Texas rivers whose fined and filtered silt originally created these sandhills during some ancient interglacial highstand. Toppled trees lie in the sandy shoals below the 30 foot high dunes. The water is shallow, two or three feet deep for several hundred yards into San Antonio Bay.

Out on the bay, patrols of brown pelicans pumped and glided low over the water. Kamikaze whirls of gulls and terns flocked the sky.

It was late summer at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge, winter home of most of the world's whooping cranes. The cranes would not arrive here for another couple of months. There being no cranes to see, my wife and daughter and I walked in the woods looking for more common creatures, javelina hogs and raccoons and armadillos, along the sandy trails of the refuge. The oak forest trails were dim and humid and full of mosquitoes, and the light blinded you as you emerged from the undergrowth when the path broke out onto a marsh or the edge of the bay.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has cleared a short trail to Dagger Point through the trees and brush. We came out of the trees with our accompanying cloud of mosquitoes onto a wooden lookout platform built over the bright water. Below the lookout, maybe a hundred feet from shore, was the final home of an abandoned rusty folding chair with the seat not quite awash in the tide. Seaweed grew on it. Next to the rusting chair was a shiny new aluminum chair with green plaid plastic straps.

A woman was sitting in the newer chair, water up to her knees, tending two propped up fishing poles, the butts of the poles socketed in pipes driven into the gritty bay bottom. She occasionally stood up and gazed intently at the water around her. She was maybe 55 or 60 years old. She was wearing shorts. Her weathered fisherman's skin was burnt deep brown. She heard us on the platform and looked up at us, shouted "You see that alligator over there?" She waved toward a dark patch of sea grass a hundred yards out. The dark patch on inspection turned out to be a six foot alligator smiling toothy in the circle of my binoculars, swinging in the tide like a windsock hung in the sea. The small bay waves sometimes inundated the reptile's head, and its valve nostrils expelled a puff of spray as the animal exhaled.

"An alligator? An alligator in the bay? I didn't know they got into the salt water," my wife shouted back.

"Oh yes." The woman tested her poles before she left them unattended and waded toward us. "He comes here a lot. I guess he likes to fish here just like I do. But I watch out for him. I always look around and see what's out here before I start fishing. Today there was a big stingaree" she said, making a circle touching the tips of her fingers with her outstretched arms, "right over there. But it's gone now. I saw the alligator when I got here. I been keepin' an eye on him. When he goes under I make sure I see where he comes up."

"Aren't you scared?" My daughter asked.

"No, honey, I'm not scared. I just make a point of knowing his whereabouts."

We mulled this over.

"Catching any fish?" I asked her.

"No, not so far. I don't expect I will, what with the low tide. The fishing is usually pretty poor here, on a low tide. But I don't mind."

Alluding to the alligator, she said, "I guess he don't mind either."

She decided this was enough conversation for now, and turned away. She waded back to her chair, sat down and crossed her Morocco leather varicose-veined legs, and became as still as the sea and the alligator under the headlong acrobatics of the skirling terns. The twin fishing poles remained motionless, their filaments a shining taut arc into the water, ready. The floating alligator lurked patiently, submerging now and again to become a patch of undulating sea grass. Out in the bay, terns plunged into the sea with small white artillery impacts. The recoil of the sea seemed to throw the birds back aloft, as they bore away their tiny glittering fish.

I took my family over the causeway and on the ferry to Port Aransas. To the beach.

I have never felt at ease in the surf. This time I noticed the waves were bigger and more tumultuous than I expected. I cautioned my daughter and some kids she was playing with to stay close to shore. I would stand in a place two feet deep between wave crests. Sometimes the waves would come up to my shoulders. Sometimes they would hiss out seaward like someone had pulled a plug and water would throb around my ankles like powerful snakes just about the time the next big wave would arrive to smash me in the chest, to knock me down and suck off my sunglasses. The combers were full of roiled up sand and sargussum weed. Far-off fish would occasionally spurt out of the waves into the air like spat silver watermelon seeds and disappear with an unheard flick in the boom of the surf.

A helicopter was patrolling the outermost line of breakers. I was only vaguely aware of it. I was watching idly as the chopper came whacking toward us on one of its passes, when suddenly it made a hard 180 degree turn, and as its engine pitch rose to a tortured metalwhine, the copter tilted back down the beach a couple of hundred yards, halted, hovered and churned down low, hammering ten feet over the water in a smoking cyclone of mist.

It looked like they lowered a person into the water. It was hard to see because of the backblast. They threw down ropes, and pulled them up. Maybe they pulled a person up. The helicopter backed up and moved sideways slowly. Minutes passed.

"What happened?" I asked a lifeguard in his stand who was conferring with a walkie-talkie.

"Someone's in trouble." They had rescued one girl, he said. "Another girl's missing."

The minutes ticked through the realm of possible breath-holding into the realm of death by drowning as the helicopter moved slowly, angrily back and forth in its veil of sizzling fog. After half an hour the helicopter ascended to an altitude of about a hundred feet and swung out in a wider search pattern as its engine sound changed to an easier blat-blat-blat-blat noise. Now they were looking for a corpse. They continued to search until sundown, when they called it off. They continued the helicopter search the next day but it was someone on the beach who found the body as it rolled stiff-armed in the surf. The drowned girl was a vacationer from Mexico.

And that day the wind was a white noise behind the rumble of surf, the most ancient noise a human being can hear, and the sun swam in the morning clouds. The sea was gray, the sky full of salt blown off the surf foam, making a haze up and down the beach like pale smoke. Walkers dottled like seabirds, walked, stopped, stooped and poked, clustered and unclustered. Wormtracked and shellstuck planks lay in the sand, alongside bladders of Portuguese men-o-war, translucent blue like inflated intestinal membranes, shimmering iridescent in the smell of rotting fish.

Royal terns patrolled the chaotic surf, and laughing gulls mobbed the strand, and beyond the breakers paired brown pelicans flew by, lumbering, propelled by invariant instinct, a quest we can neither know nor imagine, of the joy of whole fish flipping down the gullet.

The racketing flock of thousands of blackheaded laughing gulls worked the beachwrack of matted tan gulfweed brought in by the waves. A frigate bird with alert robber eyes drifted parallel to the beach scrutinizing the gulls. The gulls would abruptly run and peck as they raced brown rivulets of sand containing tiny bivalves trundled in the retreating surf, gobbling them up as they rolled. Then the birds would suddenly halt stock-still, erect, jealous of their temporary small fiefdom of sand, vigilant, again examining the incoming waves that slid diminishing up the beach to a fizzing soapy dissipation, for inborne sargussum creatures. The wind would suck the gulls up instantly when they spread their wings and they would hang and veer and razor in the air to light down in a new spot, whence to rush after another morsel tumbled in the sheeted dishwater sea retreating down the beach.

The thrashing surf had rows of waves from two directions. The longshore drift was to the north. Beyond the farthest breach of waves I saw a flash of something, which in the circle of my binoculars became a man in a seagoing kayak, the sunlight glinting in a regular signal off the blade of his methodic paddle stroke. Near him I saw a man on a surfboard, looking for the best place to catch a wave, his wet brown back shining in the sunlight.

Back of the beach, goatsfoot morning glory vines cabled across the dunes to the windward of the sea oats. Inland, the cobalt commelinas shone among the camphor weed, purple salty phloxes and mallows and asters and Mexican hats and gaillardias and prickly pears. In the marshes, cattails and rushes in many shades of olive spiked out of the dark hypersaline shallows.

The light was dim in the bait shop snackbar at the shore end of the pay-to-fish pier. Billcap fishermen drank coffee the color of marsh water in styrene cups. The racked sunglasses for sale were electrolyzing slowly in the salt air, and were too corroded for anyone to buy.

In the heat of the day, the children built sand castles.

My final morning at the beach, I woke up to a dream. Phosphor thoughts darkened within their vault, gliding toward loneliness, phantom angels. I had walked far out into the waves and could no longer feel the bottom. Tumbrels of fear approached. I lurched, footing lost, rolled in an endless bottomless wavefield somewhere, under the heavy green waves rippling in the wind. The ocean pulled me out away from everything human and I felt nostalgia for the shore, where I had left a shadow or vestige, already remote and untended, like a planecrash, days later, or the after-image of a migraine.

The present world was spilled to the horizon like a remembered jetty into the sea, a photo of the Gone, from before the wars.

So I awoke where terns crackled in the birdcry Kittyhawk wind. Die? Live? How do we live? I lay in the surf-ridden breezes, pierced with sharp high birdvoiced decibels, tenths of sound, shards, pangs, shrapnel, awash in the final moment of Narvaez's broken longboats, underlain by the ancient motoring rumble substratum bottom sound, much more than a billion years old. My breath was drawn into the Precambrian, whispering toward the cellar of time.

2 comments:

leavesbehind said...

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If you are interested in any aspect of coastal law, this site links to not only sites about Texas Coastal Law, but also sites about American Coastal Law.
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