Fiction, 1/13/10

That morning I woke at sunrise to a cloudless September sky. It was unusually cold for fall, even inside our two-person tent under the fir trees. For a while I lay there in my sleeping bag, exhaling puffs of vapor from my nostrils, staring up through the skylight. You were still asleep; all I could see was your hair poking out from the top of that down-filled mummy bag. I sat up and got dressed, groping for my socks in the grayish light. Soon fiery post-dawn rays began to filter in through your window, setting the interior aglow with shades of ochre, fuchsia, salmon. It was a cozy scene, much warmer-looking than it felt. The walls of the tent were slick and clammy with condensation, soaking to the touch. Finally finding the zipper to the door, I was struck by a thought: Should I pull the zipper slowly, tooth by tooth, or yank it fast in one fell swoop? Which would be quieter, less disruptive? These were the thoughts I ruminated over while you softly snored away. I decided to yank, just enough to allow my passage, and you didn’t stir a bit.

The path down to the beach is nearly the same as I remember it from my childhood. It’s always been my favorite place, this beach, and I wanted you to see it before things got too crazy. The rustic-style fence is still there, its axe-hewn struts and posts serving to demarcate where forest ends and cliff begins. Salal still buffers the sheer drop-off; I picked some furred, sticky berries poking out from one shrub and squished them between my fingers, wiping the reddish-purple juice on the trunk of a nearby tree. “An anointment of such significance needs reliable witnesses,” I announced theatrically, to the canopy, the undergrowth, to no one in particular. All I could hear was the ebbing surf, static and distant. Then the branches of the anointed tree rustled with movement. I strained my ears, peering into the thicket. “Who’s there?” A sound of tiny claws on rough bark. Somewhere above me a chipmunk tittered, then scrambled off. It occurred to me that to this particular chipmunk, I was probably trespassing on private property, defacing his or her humble abode with my profane “ceremony”, ogling the tiered recesses of its home like a backwoods Peeping Tom. It also occurred to me that I didn’t intend for any of these things, so I cleaned off the berry juice as best I could and hurried along to the beach.

I took the western entrance, the one furthest from our campsite: a steep stairway, carved into the gray-black basalt and fitted with a steel banister, leading straight to the cove. I jumped down from the rock with a half-hearted “Hoo-ha!”, planting both feet solidly in the sand. It was coarse, dry, and crumbly, the kind of sand that doesn’t give much resistance when you try to run through it. Piled against the base of the cliff were huge log-jams of driftwood, carried there bodily by waves long since receded. The water looked to be more than a mile out from the shore. Hands in pockets, eyes on my feet, I headed seaward. I will never forget the headlines those days, first flooding the science publications, then splashed front-page across the news: “Lowest Sea-Level In Decades, Dropping Further Still”; “Record-Low Tides Out For 2nd-Straight Week—Where’s The Water Gone?” Intertidal life was seriously imperiled; most of the sessile organisms at the high-water line were facing full-scale extinction. Scientists were baffled, to say the least. The water can’t simply disappear, they explained, it has to be somewhere, in some form—but where, and in what form, they couldn’t say. People everywhere feared some sort of maritime catastrophe—maybe an epic tidal wave, or a deluge of biblical proportions—and who could blame them? It was all very surreal and unsettling. With so much tied in with the tide, this aberration didn’t bode well with anyone. Perhaps not surprisingly, the beach was no longer popular with the masses at that point, and thus you and I had the place to ourselves. We thought we were pretty bold, going straight to the front line and all. I don’t know why I wasn’t afraid, or how I persuaded you to join me, but I was glad you did.

It was probably around eight a.m. when I reached the water’s edge. Walking across nearly a mile and a half of drained seafloor was morbidly fascinating, I must admit: The dying biota was exposed in a most compromising way, and the scavengers were out in force. There were crows, gulls, eagles, raccoons, even a mama grizzly and her cub, all gorging on the vast seafood buffet. Watching them eat, I realized I was standing on shale normally covered by thirty feet of water, and that my footsteps were likely the first taken upon this alien substrate in quite some time. I fancied myself an explorer of sorts, trudging through terra incognita, searching for signs of life. It seemed, though, that everywhere I looked, things were dead, dying, drying out. The smell, it must be said, was incredible. Simply incredible. At some point I began feeling light-headed—perhaps because of the surrounding decay, or maybe from the overwhelming sense of loss—and so I walked back toward camp. Stepping over bleached seastars and bloated rockfish, I wondered idly if the tide would ever return. It had to, I felt certain. But if and when it did, would it be too late?


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