Beach Scene

—excerpted from Thing of Darkness,
a novel-in-progress by Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin

The tide was coming in. The wide beach where people and dogs had been playing earlier in the day was rapidly growing narrow, and no one was in sight. My timing was excellent—not just the hour but the season. While I especially love the coast during the gray and stormy winter, the Pacific is plenty mysterious and daunting in the fall.

I spotted a familiar rock, the largest in a decrepit old breakwater of scattered and piled-up boulders reaching out into the sea. I took off my shoes and socks and dropped them on the sand, then rolled up my pants legs. I waded a little way through icy water that rose partly up my calves, climbed up on the rock, and sat down on it—a perch I’d enjoyed since I was a little girl. The wind was cold and sharp, and waves rolled in on both sides of the line of stones.

I’ve been to other beaches, some in tepid humid parts of the Atlantic, all full of things that sting, pinch, or slide out from under your feet. But the sea life out east is prosaic and familiar, and in most places the ocean isn’t particularly treacherous. Even on the West Coast, some of the more southern shores are docile enough if you don’t go out too far.

But northwestern waters are not for lubberly humans to enter casually. Just to wade in the shallows is to invite getting sucked out to sea by a powerful undertow or swept away by a giant sneaker wave appearing out of nowhere. No, the coast in those parts is the domain of cunning things living beneath that gray surface—and you never really get to know those creatures.

Staring off into that ambiguous stretch of sea lying between the shore and the true deeps, I glimpsed some of them—three hulking shadows of unidentifiable beasts drifting by, not distant enough to be whales, but too big to be anything a swimmer would want to run into.

Beyond those parts, out in the depths far, far beyond the horizon, were live creatures to stagger and puzzle the mind—great blue whales, undulating manta rays, seldom-seen and semi-legendary giant squids, to say nothing of primordial dwellers of unspeakably deep subaquatic canyons near scalding hydrothermal vents, those scale-armored snails, eyeless shrimp, red-plumed tube worms, and heat-thriving eels, all so weird and alien that they’d be just as much at home in the watery abyss of Jupiter’s planet Europa as here on Earth.

Even so, I’m not one to ponder the depths all that much. The deceptively intimate shoreline shallows are plenty inscrutable for my reckoning. Right down below my dangling feet, what had recently been damp sand now lay beneath a foot of water, a foamy world populated by tiny creatures that had emerged now that the tide sequestered them and invited them forth. But even the afternoon daylight was powerless to fully reveal those frolicking sprites. What were those wet shadows flitting by? I couldn’t tell. Some serpenty shape writhed before me, then slipped away before I could detect whether it was plant or animal.

Here, right here, I thought. Here lies the answer to every mystery that will ever trouble me.

If only my eyes could lucidly penetrate the chaotic rippling refraction of the water, if only I could reach down and pick up the right rock and look under it, if only I could cup my hands and capture an ounce of salt-saturated truth like a fluttering butterfly …

If only.

I’d understand it all.

No demon could mystify or frighten me.

But it wasn’t to be, not while my skull was young and thick.

Maybe when I was old and soft and supple like Monty and Beth, this place would tell me all.

But not now, not yet.

I’d have to wait to achieve that kind of ripeness.

And I could wait. I’d be patient.

I lifted my face to gaze at the sea. At that moment, a breaker swept along the breakwater before me and blew sharp spray into my face. The clouds suddenly split, and the late afternoon sunlight set the waves ablaze.

Laughter rose up in me—a kind of laughter I’d experienced before, but only in this very spot. It’s an extraordinary laughter that both affirms and denies, delights and grieves, embracing all that is joyful and tragic in life, true and ambivalent, the kind of laughter that makes the heartiest common workaday laughter seem weak and puny. I knew the laughter would be gone in an inkling, so I gave it free reign, letting it rumble ferociously out of my belly to fill up the sparkling sky, as mighty as the surf itself.

The clouds closed, the sun vanished, and my laughter ended. A sadness settled deep in my chest—a strange, good, healing sadness that always comes in the wake of such spells of cosmic laughter.

My communion with the sea had reached its lovely consummation.

It was time to go back to the house.

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