by Dan Rubin
The line between the sea and the shore is a mysterious place, a constantly shifting zone where strange shapes ooze and churn, while kelp fronds slick as eels beckon, streaming and turning in the diurnal current. I am tracing this line, walking the beach, picking my way over boulders past shallow pools, as I beachcomb.
The tide will bring in unexpected objects: tennis shoes by the hundreds, lost overboard from containerized cargo, shipping pallets cut from precious hardwood in the heart of the rainforest, to deposit them here along with empty milk cartons, fishing net floats and the never-ending stream of plastic bags and Styrofoam packaging.
When I first moved to this little island I figured I would spend my days writing and my nights playing wild music in some seaside café. But the first breath of winter blew those dreams away. With the long nights and shorter days I have drifted into lethargy, seeing no one, except for the occasional wave from Emma when she stops to drop off magazines or my monthly royalty cheques. My guitar sits untouched in the corner. Most days I nap the afternoon away.
Slowly everything has turned upside down. Nights of writing produce pages of drivel. Beachcombing preserves my sanity, but just barely. They say dry times are the true test of a writer. I have friends who have gone ten years between good ideas. One of them eventually returned to work as a postman. But he didn’t have the sea for his companion.
I remember packing the Airstream trailer when I was a boy, filling that shiny aluminum capsule with everything our family would need; then we hitched it to the old black Buick and headed out. Our black 1950 Buick had four oval holes on each side of her hood. She was named for her former owner.
The salesman at the car lot assured us that this was the real thing: the deluxe model in immaculate condition, a one-owner car he had purchased from a little old lady from Pasadena (he swore it was true) who drove only to the store and to church on Sundays.
He provided a phone number and a name. My mother called just once after we bought the car. When a brittle voice answered, she asked whether this was the Aleda Prickett who formerly owned a black 1950 Buick. “Yes dear,” the voice said, “And sorry I am to have let her go. The new Corvair just isn’t measuring up.”
I remember that first time we towed our trailer down to Doheny Beach, the first time I saw those narrow silver fish waiting in the swells, ready to ride the next phosphorescent wave up the sloping beach. It was the yearly ritual of egg-laying, the annual grunion run. Brian and I couldn’t believe it. I followed my brother as he ran up and down the beach with his bucket and flashlight, scooping up handfuls of wriggling fish.
Since then I have seen capelin rolling ashore at Outer Cove, Newfoundland, tasted fresh whitebait fried in the pan on the South Island of New Zealand, savoured smoked oolichan at a native feast on the northwest coast of Canada. But nothing beats that first encounter with wriggling female fish on a California beach beneath the dark of the moon.
I stop to rest on a boulder and think of Brian, his cockeyed smile, how he could light up any occasion with a word. He was the only one crazy enough to dive down under the tanker’s plunging bulk in those ten-foot waves, to free the propeller from the lumping strands of drift net. He loved to swim, loved the feel of the water chilly against his skin, the waves walloping his body as we dove under to swim out through the surf. In my dreams I still follow him as he swims through forests of kelp, his eyes bright as starfish, challenging the incoming tide.
He was the daring one. He was the doer and I was the watcher. Brian shipped out on freighters, joined the merchant marine, earned his mate’s ticket. I stayed home, took writing courses, became a teacher, until my first novel became a best seller. Then I retired to a life of waiting, watching and writing.
We were a matched set, joined at the hip. That’s what everyone said. The perfect brothers. We went everywhere together. We played music together. After he married Lillian that all changed and we drifted apart. A change of the tide.
I am thinking of water slipping down the drain. Yes, it really does move counter-clockwise in the southern hemisphere. I have spent a year watching things go down the drain, sometimes moving in one direction, sometimes in the other. The stories that I once wove into neat, unexpected patterns are gone now.
The gulls screech overhead. My hands clench, tangled in strands of seaweed that stream in the receding current like Lillian’s long brown hair. I rip them from the rock and fling them into the wind. All of this is pointless. There is nothing more to say. Brian knew that. Maybe that’s why he drank.
He always said he drank because he was a sailor, because he liked to party, because he needed to stay in touch with his friends when he was ashore. Lillian’s calls, late at night, seemed too desperate to me, too filled with her own inadequacy, to be taken as a warning. Everything is going great, I told her. Brian was studying for his skipper’s ticket then. It’s just his way of dealing with the pressure, I told Lillian. When he has his own ship he’ll be fine. Don’t worry.
These rocks are damned slippery. I am clambering over humps of rock festooned in rich brown ribbons, clinging to their slimy surface with my fingers. The iridescent pools beyond are full of life, fish darting, the gurgle of water moving between the rocks.
Brian came back from his voyages filled to the brim with exotic places and people. His stories were laced with unexpected events and encounters with characters too vivid to be real. When I finally had the time and money to go in search of my own stories, they never seemed as rich as his. I became a collector of other people’s second hand anecdotes, my stock in trade.
My next book sold well, but not as well as the first, providing just enough to live on. I moved into a one-room apartment in the West End, and waited for new stories to arrive.
Then suddenly Brian was gone. The phone call from Lillian came just as I was packing to fly to Hong Kong to meet him. I got on the plane anyway, ended up sitting on a beach in Thailand, watching tourists turn red, taking expensive elephant rides. After two weeks, thoroughly bored and sunburnt, I flew back to my apartment in Vancouver.
The night I got back I saw a television documentary about identical twins who had been separated at birth. Twin brothers who grew up separately arrange to meet for the first time since their birth. They fly to a city neither have visited before. In the hotel room they do the obvious thing: strip down then study each other from head to toe, verifying the fact that they really are the same. But even stranger is the moment they unpack their suitcases. Inside they see exactly the same brand of shampoo, the same toothpaste, the same cologne, the same shirt and tie.
Brian and I were like Siamese twins, joined at the head, sharing thoughts, sharing music. When we made music we were like two parts of the same person. Neither of us was complete without the other. Maybe that’s why he drank.
I am looking down into a little world, a painting made in grey and green, brown and blue. Mirrored in the pool I become a chimera, with seaweed for a mouth and two perfect anemone eyes.
This island is too small to hold two people who are alike. Everyone here is different and they make a fetish of it. They wear the fact of their difference like a label, tell you all about it the first time you meet them. They make sure you know they aren’t some bloody mainlander.
Two months ago I was walking this same beach when I came upon David. My neighbour David is one of those people who constantly attacks others or somehow invites attack. He had tried his hand at logging until no one would work with him, then bought an elegant handmade 30-foot sloop. I was beachcombing the day I found him standing in front of her, chainsaw in hand.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m leaving,” he explained, “And if I can’t sail this boat, I’ll make damn sure no one else will, either.” He pulled the cord and the chainsaw roared into life. I turned away, unable to watch him destroy such beauty.
He left the next day. Good riddance, everyone said. We’d seen the last of David. Sure enough, a week later George arrived. After the first fist fight in front of the bar, we all knew: George was the new David.
The first time I walked into Wallace’s General Store, heads turned. They all wanted to know who I was. By the third visit my identity was set. Bert Wallace had me pegged the next time I stepped in for groceries. “You’re that writer guy aren’t you, who’s staying in the cabins down at Bell Bay?” he said, smiling.
So that’s me. Writer Guy. But it’s a hollow label. I don’t write. I sit and stare at the storms sweeping in from the southeast. I walk the beaches, looking for stuff. I sleep away the afternoon, cook rice and fish in black bean sauce, then wash it down with cheap local beer. But I don’t write any more.
Suddenly I am slipping sideways, foot sliding on some slimy black tar from an ancient oil spill or an encrusting sponge. I land hard. Lie still, I tell myself. Blinking away the pain in my head, I gingerly move arms, legs, find nothing broken. Just bruises. Then I notice it: something bright in front of my nose, half wrapped in seaweed and debris, a glinting metal surface.
Something lies there, hidden under wrinkled alligator skin, dark, wet and slippery. I sit up to uncover an oblong mass beneath the seaweed. The tide has turned, water is lapping at the edges of the case, as I pull it from the sand and seaweed, as the tide slides into reverse, slipping back up the beach in loops and swirls.
The coffin-shaped wooden case is complete with metal lock, hinges and handle. The lock snaps open, spring-loaded. The jigsaw pieces within are strange yet familiar. Embalmed in salt-stained cloth are all the parts of that classic form perfected in Cremona.
How did this arrive on my beach? Halfway around the world Brian slides beneath the bulk of the freighter. A year later, this thing washes up on my beach. His violin never came back from that last voyage. Was it given away, sold, sent to join him? Lillian never said. Here on a faraway beach among forested islands I am holding its fragmented twin, found among the flotsam.
Many years ago I heard a story from an old instrument maker. A violinist in the Los Angeles Symphony, who led a world famous string quartet, was rushing from one rehearsal to the next, when he forgot to zip up his cloth outer case. His Stradivarius in its inner case slid from its wrapping just as he rushed to the curb to hail a cab. In an instant the violin disappeared down the sewer. Rain was falling. The sewers were full. There was no way to find it. He was heartbroken, of course.
Weeks later, his closest friend was walking along the beach when he came upon a strange sight: a violin case sitting on the sand. He knew it immediately. The instrument was reassembled by a master craftsman who restored the wood by gradually soaking it free of salt, then immersing the pieces in benzene, xylene, turpentine. Then he glued the pieces back together. When it was strung up the master’s violin sounded even better than before. On his sixtieth birthday, the received an unexpected gift: his fully restored violin.
I examine the pieces in the coffin-shaped wooden case at my feet. This was once a fine instrument. Not a Strad, of course, but a good handmade violin. The decorative inlay along the edge is clean, the f-holes well-cut, the scroll a thing of beauty. The bow is hand-made. I imagine having the instrument restored. I know this is possible.
Then I could sit on my makeshift front porch and learn to play Smash the Windows, Whiskey Before Breakfast and all the rest of Brian’s favourites. I savour the thought of having him back in my life in this oblique way.
Brian’s violin came from a pawnshop on Market Street in San Francisco. Dad found it during one of his buying trips for the store. He stripped the dark finish, replacing it with layers of carefully applied clear varnish that took years to settle in, but revealed the gorgeous rippled maple on the back. How many times did I wish that glowing golden violin were mine? A battered old Gibson guitar gave me my chance to join in the music. I was always the one who stood at the back, playing chords while Brian hit the high notes.
Lillian’s tears, the night before I flew to Hong Kong, were real. I harvested those tears, took her grief for my own, claimed her broken golden body as my just rewards. Like everything else that belonged to Brian, like everything I should have had, but never could touch unless it happened to wash up in front of me.
After Thailand, after elephants and emptiness, I found a beach of my own. Left everything behind except one box of books and my guitar. Came here. Became Writer Guy. Told my publisher where to send the royalties. Left no forwarding address.
Yet this thing has found its way to me.
My hands are fists knotted in rotten seaweed. Blood is in my mouth. I am roaring with the waves. What rises in me finally is fury unstoppable as the tide.
I rewrap the pieces carefully, close and latch the case, then walk along the beach and out onto the point. Here currents sweep outward into the Gulf, carrying things to other places, other islands.
Standing high on the headland I face the morning light. As the sun rises over the mountains of the mainland I swing the case wide to launch it into the stream, then watch as it bobs to the surface, to be carried north on the rising tide.
Dan Rubin is a writer, teacher and musician from Canada. He also runs Second Stage Creative Arts Management Services in Newfoundland. Find out more at his website: www.danrubin.ca.