ED BOYLE - THE KEEPER OF THE MARSH
The Keeper of the Marsh
No boy can out-fish me!
And I intended to prove it by becoming the first girl ever to win the Annual Seabrook Surf-Casting Classic. I practiced all the time: mornings - casting my line in the channel outside my back door; afternoons – trying out new bait and tackle in the calm of the harbor; evenings – charting links between fish movement and air and water temperatures out on the jetty. By the time August arrived, I'd know more about fish than fish knew about fish.
But then, a few days before ninth grade let out for the year, my father sat at the kitchen table eating breakfast and told me: "You'll be taking care of your brother along with your other chores this summer."
"I most certainly will not," I shook my head. "I got to practice for The Classic the next three months."
Dad drew a deep breath. "Don't make this difficult, Mikaela." He rubbed his face with his hand. "I'm stringing five miles of traps this season. I've asked around the marsh, and everyone's too stretched to help."
"That's not my problem," I shot back.
He opened his mouth to talk, but I jumped up from my seat. "Don't you think you have an obligation to support your daughter?" I grilled him. I paced around the table and ranted that he was a sexist, and I was considering reporting him to the authorities.
"And I don't mean the local authorities where you can pick up a phone and fix it. I'm talking ACLU. You know what that spells?"
He mopped up a streak of egg yolk with the last piece of his toast; put it in his mouth and chewed it slowly.
"It spells your picture plastered across the front page of every newspaper in the state," I informed him.
He picked up his plate and rinsed it in the sink. He turned around and wiped his mouth with a napkin.
"Are you through?" he asked.
I stand on the Shore Street sidewalk. Patrick's school bus squeals to a stop in front of me. It's short and stubby like a yellow bread-toaster on wheels. A bunch of the kids inside it wear helmets, and their heads bobble like balloons on a string. The Carson boy who lives a few stops down the route is gawking out the window with kitty-cat-pendulum-clock eyes. His mouth is hanging open, and his teeth are as jagged as a dragonfish's. Sometimes, the kids on Patrick's bus remind me of the broken toys in the discount bin at the secondhand store.
Patrick stands up from the back seat and totters up the center aisle. He's small for an eleven- year old, and his head barely reaches the top of the seat-backs. He taps the shoulders of a few of his classmates as he strolls past them and laughs when they startle. When he reaches the bus's bottom step, he halfway turns around and blows a distracted kiss to the driver. She leans across the oversized steering wheel and grins down at me.
"He's a piece of work, that one," she shouts over the whine of the engine.
"I suppose," I shrug. "Have a good summer."
"You, too." She nods. "Have a good summer, sweetie," she calls to Patrick. He mumbles and raises his hand 'goodbye' without looking back.
I grip Patrick beneath his bicep and steer him onto the stone dust road that leads to our neighborhood. Our home is one of twelve cottages that sit on the flatlands of the Seabrook coastal salt marsh. We're an island attached to the mainland, the forty or so people who live here like to joke.
Acres of wispy seagrass stretch between Shore Street and our house and the narrow stone dust road that cuts through the middle of it is barely wide enough for a single car. Most of the twelve houses are split-shake ranches with saggy rooflines and hooking chimneys. Wood pilings elevate them off the marsh. Once I get Patrick on to the road, I untangle the backpack from his shoulders.
"How was school, Bugs?" I kid him with the nickname he earned from being a pest. He doesn't answer. He stops, holds up a hand in front of his flat face, slowly twists it front-and-back as if he can see through the skin.
"Quit counting your bones and c'mon," I shake my head and pull him forward. His nose is snubbed, and his eyes are green and shaped like almonds. They twinkle when the sunlight bounces off them. His sneakers slap the road with each step. When we're halfway home, he yanks his arm away from me and plods off the road into the marsh grass.
"C'mon, Pat," I call after him. "We don't have time to hang around the pools today." I know already that my words are useless. He's a shark stalking a bloody fish.
"Ju-just once." He turns and holds up his index finger. I sigh. He likes to spy on flat-footed sea bugs skimming across the water or panicky minnows flashing in the afternoon sun. Once in a while, I go with him, and our passing shadows spook skittish spider crabs into stage-left exits.
I baby-step backward and watch him crouch over a tidal pool as if he is trying to see his reflection. He reaches out with both hands and dips them deep into the pool. When he stands, he is breathing fast and heavy.
"Mik-k-k-ayla! Wait!" he yells.
I stop. His cupped hands drip as he stumbles through the marsh and back onto the road. When he gets closer, I see that he's cradling a starfish in his hands. It's about as thick and round as a hamburger, all pink and purple and pimply, and its legs hang over the edges of his hands like thick noodles. He sets it down and kneels beside it.
"Too many," he says, touching each of the starfish's legs and squinting up at me. I'm not sure what he means right away, but then I see that something is different.
"Yeah, Bugs, you're right," I say and bend down for a better view. "What the heck? Six legs?"
We watch it for a while as it dries and tries to blend-in by camouflaging its colors to match the gray granules of the road.
"You better get it back in the water," I finally say, but he'll have none of it. He stands up and smiles, as happy as a seal in the harbor. He cradles the starfish out in front of him with both hands, and we march home without my once having to hurry him along. When we get to our house, he lowers the starfish into the big tidal pool outside our back door and kneels on the bank. And he stays there, spellbound, watching his new friend get accustomed to its new home.
"A fixed heart is a fresh start," my mother used to cheerily preach whenever she was trying to console gloom.
Today, my father - in his usual absent-minded way - botches my mother's old motto. "Can I help you fix your heart?" He says. He sits across from me at the kitchen table, waiting for my reply, and I stare blankly at him. I have barely talked to him since he told me I would be watching Patrick for the summer.
"It's not what she used to say," I finally snap at him. "Besides," I tell him, "you can fix my heart by finding someone else to take care of Patrick." I stomp upstairs to my room.
My father has been pestering me about expressing my feelings ever since my mother died. Three months ago, she woke up, went to the dentist, and never made it home. An artery in her brain broke, and she lost control of our car, drove it into a section of guardrail that bordered the busy boulevard up in Hampton Falls. I was in school when it happened, and was summoned to the front office over the loudspeaker. I peeked through the glass in my principal's office door and saw my father pacing in front of her desk. I wondered what I had done wrong.
"It's Mom," my father turned and said to me when I knocked on the door and entered the office.
We hurried to the hospital but were too late. Afterward, standing outside mom's room, the EMT's who took care of her introduced themselves and told us how sorry they were. They also told us that my mother was confused and kept repeating the same thing while they pulled her from the car:
"He's going to be scared if I'm not at the bus stop."
On the morning of my mother's service, my father asked me if I'd like to speak at her funeral.
"I know it's a lot to ask, but she'd have liked it. And it's a good opportunity to say a proper 'goodbye'," he said.
"No," I told him.
How do you stand up and tell your neighbors about the warm swirl you got in your stomach when your mother sat on the bed beside you, biting her lip and hoping the thermometer in your mouth hasn't risen another degree? How do you describe the flush of pride that tingles your skin when she gushes over the good grade you got on a test? How do you look out and tell neighbors that you were afraid what they might think about a girl who only wanted to fish; and that your mother - who didn't even know how to bait a hook – was your biggest fan.
While every family in our community quietly stood beneath the tent that sheltered my mother's casket, Patrick sat in the grass at my father's feet. Reverend Manning gathered us into a flock and preached that we'd one day be together. Near the end of the sermon, Patrick began to hum a lullaby that my mother always sang to him. My father leaned over to quiet him, but the reverend held up his hand and stopped Dad.
And as Patrick sat and plucked grass blades while humming his soft song, the entire congregation turned and listened. I glanced at my neighbors' faces: a group of mothers instinctively reached out and held hands with each other while a half-dozen weather-beaten fishermen stoically clenched their jaws and stared at the ground. After Patrick hummed his last note and raised his head, someone moaned, and the full force of my mother's death crashed over the congregation like a rogue wave. And the instinct to protect one of their own overcame the flock, and they closed ranks and formed a circle around Patrick.
It is two weeks into the summer, and I am enduring the demands of my stubborn father.
"Mikaela!" He yelled from the bottom of the stairs last night. "Where is the picture of your mother that I put on the mantle?"
I opened my bedroom door. "It's in the top drawer of the laundry room's bureau," I told him.
"What's your mother's picture doing in a draw?" He stomped up the stairs and faced me. I closed my door and jumped into bed.
"Don't move it again. You understand?" he said through the door. "I like it on the mantle, and so does Patrick."
Today, I wake up and walk through the front room. I don't look in the direction of the mantle. I just can't. When I walk into the kitchen, my father and Patrick are sitting at the table.
"Do Candle," Patrick pleads with my father.
My father looks at me and grins. He has been reciting "Candle" for us since we were in diapers. His father used to quote it to him. It is a verse from an old poem, The Keeper of the Harbor. My father stands up and winks at me and clears his throat; summons up his best baritone.
He sits a' top a lighted candle
For crippled boats to see
On stormy night he steers lamp handle
Beams healing light to thee
"Again," Patrick says. "Do Candle again."
My father laughs. "What do you think, Mik?" My father asks me. "One more time?"
I open the back door to go to the shed and gather today's fishing gear. "You do realize that he doesn't know it's about a guy in a lighthouse, right?" I say.
My father smile droops. "What are you talking about?"
"He only wants to hear it is because he thinks some guy is sitting on a candle," I say.
My father frowns and shakes his head. "You're not very nice, you know it?" He rubs Patrick's shoulder. I walk outside and close the door behind me.
At the bottom of the steps, I stop and turn around. I start to walk back up the steps to apologize but pause. What would I say? I wish my mother were here. She'd guide me right. I don't want to think about her, though. Every time, it ends in the same place.
When I come back from the shed, my father has already left for work. I clean the house. I cook breakfast. I sit outside and watch Patrick kneel beside the tidal pool in our backyard and stare at his starfish. I have to come up with a plan that allows me to practice. When I win The Classic, things will be better. A picture of me smiling and accepting the first-place trophy will be in the local paper. The whole town will know what a good angler I am. Maybe then, my father will stop pestering me about fixing my heart.
After lunch, I take Patrick to the channel and bring his starfish in a plastic pail. "You sit there, Bugs." I point to a sand clearing in the marsh grass. "I have work to do."
I pitch my lure into the rippling current, and Patrick gets antsy. "Put in pool," he holds up his pail and crowds me on the shore.
"C'mon, Pat. You're annoying! Let me practice," I say.
"Put in pool." He ignores me and continues to crowd me.
"Stop it!" I yell. "Ask Dad to help you with your starfish!"
After a while, he has me too frazzled to even fill out my fishing journal, and I finally just take him home.
Adnan, our new neighbor, has wandered past the front of our house eight times. He peeks in our backyard to see what Patrick and I are doing. Adnan and his family moved into the vacant house at the end of the road a month ago. He attended the last few days of school and sat as still and quiet as a mannequin in my class's back row.
Adnan is brown like the sandy bottom of the channel, and his straight hair is as black and shiny as a shark's eye. His father does not work the ocean like every other father on the marsh. In the early morning, his father treks to his job at the tailor's shop a half-mile into town. Adnan's mother hangs laundry on her clothesline, and she, herself, looks like a walking clothesline. Headscarf and robes, as colorful as a tankful of tropical fish, flow from the top of her head to her ankles.
When they first moved in, a couple of the men assembled on the road outside of our house. I listened from my bedroom window.
"They're Muslims," crotchety old Mr. Creegan, our next- door neighbor, said to my father. "What's a refugee family of Muslims doing in a fishing village?"
Everyone turned and studied the house.
"Don't be worrying about storms until the rain clouds blow in, fellas," my father finally said, and a few of the men raised their eyebrows. Before they parted, one of the men said: "Let's keep on top of this."
On Adnan's ninth trip past the front of our house, I run out to the road.
"Are you here to fish in the Classic?" I confront him.
"The what?" He scrunches his face.
"You know…angling?" I cast and reel a make-believe fishing rod.
"I do not like the ocean," he says in carefully pronounced English.
"You live on the marsh and don't like the ocean?" I interrogate him. He opens his mouth and stares at me.
"Ummm," he mumbles.
"Why do you keep walking past our house?" I ask.
"I saw you and your brother in the yard," he stammers. "I don't know anybody."
"Okay," I finally nod. "If you're not the competition, you'll do. C'mon and meet Patrick."
We walk into the backyard. Patrick is kneeling beside the tidal pool, and he looks up at Adnan.
"St-st-st-arfish," Patrick stutters and points into the pool.
"Ohhhh," Adnan crouches beside him. "It is beautiful," he says to Patrick. Then he turns to me and raises his eyebrow. "Is it his pet?'
"Pffft," I shake my head. "Starfish aren't pets."
Adnan stands and blushes.
"I don't know what you'd call it," I nod. "I think Patrick believes it's magic 'cause it has six legs."
Adnan nods and turns to Patrick. "What is your starfish's name?"
Patrick squints and stares at Adnan. If I didn't know better, I'd think he was sizing him up. It unnerves me a little, but not Adnan. He waits patiently for Patrick to reply. Patrick finally shrugs and turns back to watch his starfish.
I wake up early and glimpse out my bedroom window.
It is still dark, and on our front yard beneath me, my father stretches his back and steps onto the stone road toward the community dock. I stumble into Patrick's room and wake him.
"Starfish," he sits up and yawns.
"Yes. Get dressed," I tell him. "That kid, Adnan, you met yesterday is going to help watch you. Don't bug him. I need him."
While Patrick eats his cereal, I pack lunch. Adnan knocks on our back door at six-thirty.
"You came!" I open the door and laugh. Patrick tiptoes across the kitchen, stands behind me, and peeks out at Adnan.
"Yes," Adnan says, and tilts his head to examine Patrick.
"Let's go catch some fish!" I clap my hands.
We tread out back to the tidal pool where Patrick scoops up his starfish and plunks it into his pail. We march in unison toward the channel.
"So, here's the deal," I turn and tell Adnan. "I need to practice to win The Classic in August. But, Bugs here," I motion to Patrick with my head, "he can be kind of a pest. So that's where you come in."
Adnan chews his lip. "This Classic?" he asks. "How do you win?"
I nod. "I have a rule book at the house. I'll lend it to you. It's six hours of shore fishing from anywhere within town limits. The heaviest haul of edible fish takes the title."
Adnan rubs the side of his head. "If everyone is fishing at different locations, how do they keep track?"
"It's simple," I tell him. "Everyone gets assigned a separate judge."
Adnan nods. Then he stops walking. "You get to win The Classic. What do I get?"
I stop and smile. "I like that. Straight to business. Right to the point. You help me watch Patrick, and we'll split the fish I catch while I'm practicing."
"But, what if you don't catch any fish?"
I smirk. "Trust me," I wink at him and jerk my head to signal him to follow. "You and your family will be wolfing down fresh bass tonight."
We go a little further until we reach the flat rock on the inlet. The tides are changing, and the fish will be moving. We stop on the beach where the channel meets the inlet. Adnan stares at me.
"One condition," he says solemnly. "I want it to be clear. I do not go in the ocean."
"Suit yourself." I shrug and pull my journal from my backpack. I write down the time and air temperature from the tiny thermometer I keep clipped on my jacket. I pinch a sea worm's head off, so it doesn't nip me and thread it to my hook. It wiggles like a charged wire. I cast it out into the current and bump it along the sandy bottom on the retrieval. Behind me, Adnan and Patrick dig a hole in the wet sand. Patrick protests a little, but Adnan convinces him they will make a pool that the starfish likes.
"It will be like a Disneyland for starfish." Adnan grins at Patrick.
They dig a hole about the size and shape of a bathtub. It fills up with six inches of underground water. Patrick gently places the starfish into the pool, and it spreads its legs like a parachutist and floats to the bottom.
After a half-hour of unproductive bottom fishing, Adnan strolls over and points to the sea worm on my hook.
"Will my family be wolfing down worms tonight?" he asks, as blank-faced as a dead fish.
My cheeks flush. "Whoa, Adnan." I hold up my hands. "I never guaranteed…" I stammer. And just as I do, Adnan winks at me and laughs. Then he saunters back to Patrick.
I fish the bottom another five minutes and keep peeking over my shoulder to see if Adnan is still laughing. He's not. He and Patrick are decorating the hole they dug with empty clam shells and round rocks and sinewy limbs of driftwood. I switch over to a top water jerk bait, and the water explodes as soon as the lure slaps the surface. My heart beats as fast as a flapping tuna tail, and I turn around. Adnan and Patrick are already on their feet, cheering. I drag my catch on to the beach. It's a small, 'schoolie' striped bass. I know there's more where that came from and toss it back in the water and cast my line out again. Another hit! While I'm reeling it up, I note that if the Classic is coming down to the wire and the tides are right, I can come to this spot and catch a lot of fish quickly.
About noon, Adnan taps my shoulder from behind.
"Please," he says. "Watch Patrick."
He strides about twenty yards down the beach. I sit beside Patrick.
"Get him," Patrick points to him and says.
"In a minute, Bugs," I whisper and watch.
Adnan folds his arms across his chest, and I see his lips moving. After a bit, he drops to his knees and presses his forehead into the ground. It goes on that way for a few minutes, and then he stands and walks back to us.
"Salat," he stands in front of us and must see the confusion on our faces. "Noon prayer."
"What are you praying for?" I ask.
"I prayed that my…" He stops and studies Patrick and me. "I just prayed, is all," he finally says and goes and sits next to the pool that he and Patrick dug.
"Can I help you fix your heart?" My father takes a seat across from me at the kitchen table and stares. Earlier, I turned up the music on the radio when I heard him in the front room, telling Patrick that Mom was in heaven.
"Fix your own heart," I say, and pick up my dinner plate; walk upstairs to my bedroom.
After I am finished eating, I lean back and listen to that unrelenting voice that lives in my head: 'Someone out there is practicing more than you are,' the voice taunts me.
I sit up straight and rub my face with the palms of my hands. "I am tougher than everybody else," I whisper defiantly to the voice. "I am stronger."
I talk to myself a lot since Mom died. It distracts me from thinking about her, and it helps me push past the day-to-day challenges of having to take care of Patrick, cook, clean the house, and do the laundry. I wonder if the voice in my head will go quiet after I win The Classic.
During June, I focus on bait. I bump shrimp, sea worms, and a bushy buck-tail across the sandy bottoms of the flats with good results, and a red-eyed spoon spinning at mid-depth is always a solid choice to snag a straggler. Jerk baits and slash baits flashing glints of sunlight tempt prowling game fish away from their schools, and there isn't a sport-fish swimming who can ignore the frantic splashing of a top water popper.
When July comes, I build my game plan. I cross-check baits with water temperatures, air temperatures, and tidal currents. I am surprised to see how consistently the fish move and feed with tides and times of day. I record everything in my journal and, afterward, chart bait graphs based on air and water temperature and general weather and tide conditions.
And while I focus on fishing, Adnan keeps Patrick entertained with his starfish and also helps me plot a strategy for the non-fishing element of The Classic:
"Competitors have to move if they want to fish in a new spot," Adnan paces on the shore behind me one afternoon and pores over The Classic's rule book while I fish, and Patrick plays with his starfish. "So, we have the advantage. Our legs will be younger and stronger than many of the entrants. We can move faster."
"It's only six hours of fishing," I cast my line and glance over my shoulder at Adnan. "No one gets tired in six hours."
"In the heat they do," he says and smiles.
"How do we know that someone won't cheat?" Adnan asks me on another day.
"Stop it!" I scold him. "I told you, they're volunteer judges. All of them live in town, and it's a random draw who's assigned to whom. No one's going to cheat."
When August arrives, the change-of-season east winds appear and water in the channels bubble up and lick the tops of the channel banks. Water temperatures bob up and down like a seal in a school of herring, and the winds ball my fishing line into a tangled birds nest. I experiment with snap weights and different gauges of line, and by the end of the first week of August, I devise a workable game plan should the day of the Classic be windy.
During that first week, the afternoons also turn humid and sticky, and Patrick and I swim in the channels after practice. Adnan stands in ankle-deep water on the shore and watches us.
"Aren't you hot?" I ask him one day. "Come in." I splash him.
"I do not like the ocean," he shakes his head and runs.
"You're sweating," I tell him. "Just come in and cool off."
"I do not like the ocean," he insists.
I laugh. "How can you live on a marsh and not like the ocean?" I ask. He doesn't answer, and I dive into the water with Patrick.
It is August, the month of The Classic, and my game plan is in place. From six AM to eight, I'll fish the deep pools along the jetty's south side. Once that dries up, I will sprint the length of Sandy Beach and fish off the flat rock on the inlet until ten. In the last two hours, I will skim a popper over the water's surface at the mouth of the channel. The record catch for the Classic is forty-three pounds. That was set twenty years ago. Three days ago, I caught and released fifty-seven pounds of fish on my practice run.
"We are ready," Adnan pumped his fist after our trial run.
Adnan is going to be my second. He is going to help me move my gear from one location to the next. Patrick is going to be Adnan's second. At first, I wasn't sure of Patrick joining us – he may slow us up with worry about his starfish – but Adnan insisted.
"He will wake up our luck," Adnan predicted.
This morning, I'm casting a broken-backed lure into the channel when Adnan taps my shoulder. "I need you to see something," he says.
"I'm kind of busy at the moment," I say, and whip up the tip of my rod to set the hook into a passing bluefish. After I reel it in, Adnan taps my shoulder again. I turn around, and his mouth is stretched tight. "Please," he motions with his hand for me to follow him.
I set down my fishing rod, and we trudge through the sand to the hole that he and Patrick dug earlier. It's about as round and deep as a kiddie pool. Behind the hole, Patrick stumbles out of the marsh holding a small crab in one of his hands. He lowers it into the hole, and the crab scurries under a shell and tucks its claws and legs beneath its body. Patrick sits beside the hole and stares at his starfish.
"Patrick has decorated the hole by himself today," Adnan turns and tells me.
"Okay," I say. I scan the hole and turn to Adnan. "Thanks for the heads-up, Adnan, but I have to practice."
I start to walk back to the water, and Adnan grabs me by the elbow. "Please," he stares into my eyes. "Look closer."
I hunch down and peer into the hole. There are two crabs, two minnows, a couple of sea worms, a sand shrimp, and some shells. I glance up at Adnan and back into the hole. I focus. One of the crabs is missing a claw, and the other one is minus a few legs. All of the sea worms have lost segments off their back ends, and both of the minnows have twisted top fins that are causing them to swim sideways. The sand shrimp has no tail, and even the hollowed shells have cracks in them.
"What the heck…?" I look up at Adnan.
"Yes," Adnan nods and whispers. "They are all… broken."
Patrick places a few rocks in the bottom of the pool. He works slowly, so he doesn't startle any of the wounded creatures. He's lost in his world.
"Why would he…?" I ask Adnan.
He shrugs. "I was hoping you might know," he says.
I shake my head and stand. Beyond the marsh, the low moan of a distant foghorn interrupts the silence. I look up and see the tip of the White Island Lighthouse poking through the haze. I turn around and look at Patrick.
"He sits a' top a lighted candle…" I whisper.
Registration for The Classic is tonight. My father has to come so that he can sign the under-age permission waiver.
"Are you still going to help me sign-up?" I stammered this morning while Dad rinsed his breakfast plate in the sink.
He grabbed his jacket and lunch pail off the countertop on his way out the door. "I didn't forget," he said.
After he leaves, I wake Patrick and feed him, help him get dressed. I'm antsy about registration, and I take Patrick outside while we wait for Adnan. Patrick wanders over to the backyard tidal pool and sits on the ground. He watches his starfish creep along a kelp-covered rock beneath the water. I try to calm my jitters and sweep the outside walkway. When I am almost finished, I stop.
My mother is here. I don't know how, but she's here. I look around. Maybe she's woven herself into the soft wind that's bending the marsh grass. Or maybe she's transformed into pure light and has hitched a ride on the bright strands of sunlight warming my arms. She's here, as sure as I'm standing here. I look over at Patrick, and he is no longer watching his starfish. He is staring at me. He is smiling.
"Are you OK?" Adnan's voice startles me.
"What!" I turn. "Oh, y-yeah," I stutter. "I thought I just felt something."
Adnan tilts his head and studies me. "Felt something?" He asks.
"It's nothing," I say. "Let's go. I have a new lure I want to check out."
Later that night, I ask my father if it's ok for Adnan to come with us to registration. "Yes," he says, and I see a look of relief wash over his face. I don't think either of us was looking forward to suffering through the twenty-minute car ride to registration. We barely speak to one another.
"There's been a change, Patrick," Adnan teases Patrick in the back seat of the car. "Instead of a trophy, the judges have decided to give your starfish to the winner."
"NOOOO!" Patrick squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head, and my father peeps in the rearview mirror and chuckles.
Once we get inside the gymnasium, my heart beats like I've just fallen overboard into a school of sharks. It's finally here! In the corner, a group of leathery old men good-naturedly tease each other.
"You couldn't win The Classic…" one of the old men tells another, "if they let you fish with a dragger and a net."
The other men laugh. They are dressed in bright yellow slickers and rain hats as if the fishing competition is going to start as soon as registration closes. A couple of them nod to my father when we walk past. In the center of the gymnasium, three rugged-looking fishermen with buzz-cuts and camouflage jackets pick each other's brains about ocean currents and water temperature and how to drift a top plug on a riptide.
While we're standing in line, the back doors open, and two middle-aged men saunter in. They're wearing windbreakers that say Long Island Bass Brigade on the back.
Both of them chew on unlit wooden tobacco pipes and wear floppy field hats stitched with fishing licenses and shiny lures. The gymnasium goes quiet. Whispers of "New York ringers," and "Who are these squatters?" circulate, and the three toughs in the center of the gymnasium eye the trespassers with suspicion.
"You boys are going to have a disappointing ride back to New York!" one of the old men finally yells, and everybody in the gym laughs and cheers. The two New York men wave, and one of them wags his finger at the old man who called them out.
Word comes down the line that there will be over fifty anglers this year, the biggest field ever to compete. When we get to the checkout and payment counter, my father hands the tournament clerk my completed application and the twenty-five dollar fee.
"This for you?" The clerk glances up at my father and scrunches his nose.
"No," my father says. "I'm here to sign the underage waiver."
The clerk studies it over the top of his glasses. "Michael?" He squints and asks.
"Mikaela," I step in front of my father and tell the clerk.
The clerk analyzes me like I'm a two-headed fish. "You do know this is an open tournament…no Women's Division?" he asks me.
I open my eyes wide and bring both hands up to my mouth. "Will there be men there to help me put the icky worm on the hook?"
Behind me, Adnan snickers. "Uh-oh," he whispers to Patrick. The clerk blushes and turns to my father. His eyes plead for help.
"I'm staying out of this," my father shuts him down with a nod.
The clerk eyes me again and quickly stamps the application. I hear Adnan whispering to Patrick: "She's getting feisty. She is going to win."
The clerk looks at my father. "Sign here," he points to the waiver line on the form. He hands me my entry packet.
"Good luck," he says dryly, and we walk away.
It is three days before the competition. After morning training is over, I take Patrick swimming in the channel. Adnan stands on the shore and watches.
"Come in," I splash him, but he backs away from the water's edge.
We eat lunch around the pool they dug in the sand and watch Patrick's six-legged starfish deftly crawl along the face of a slanted rock.
"Aren't you hot?" I ask Adnan as I dry my hair with a towel.
He glances away and chews his bottom lip. "I am from Jableh," he says suddenly. "It is a fishing village in Syria."
I laugh. "You're from a fishing village?"
He looks at me, and his eyes squint in confusion.
"You won't even hardly put your feet in the water," I explain.
He smiles and picks up a plastic shovel at the edge of the starfish's hole and stares at it.
"My little brother, Nizar, played with a shovel like this back in Syria," Adnan says. His voice sounds different, like he is speaking from the bottom of a deep well. "Everywhere he went, Nizar carried it. His shovel was yellow, and he even took it to bed with him."
Something about the tone of Adnan's voice makes Patrick set down his sandwich. I set my sandwich down, too.
"You have a little brother?" I whisper.
Adnan lowers his eyes and nods.
"Nizar used to cry when I left for school in the morning. He would stare out the window and watch me leave. He thought I was never going to come back."
"Patrick used to do that when my mother would leave," I reach out and hold Patrick's hand. "Remember, Bugs?"
Adnan smiles sadly. He playfully splashes Patrick with a few drops of water from the hole.
"I used to come home from school and take Nizar to the shore," Adnan continues. "He liked to play in the water and search for shells and round rocks. Every day I took him swimming."
The air suddenly turns dense and hard to breathe. Patrick slips his hand away from mine and shuffles over to Adnan and sits beside him. Adnan draws his mouth tight.
"We had to leave Jableh," he says. "There were things that were happening," he looks at Patrick. "Scary things."
Patrick rubs his hands on his thighs. I doubt he understands everything Adnan is saying, but he knows it's serious.
"My father saved enough money for passage," Adnan scans the ground and says. "The boat was crowded, and people were afraid. It wasn't long before we saw Greece."
Adnan raises his head and stares out into the channel. The tendons in his jaw pulse. He turns and studies me with bright and shiny eyes. "During the crossing, I was holding Nizar, and my father held my mother," he says. "We knew it was dangerous, but the things happening on shore were even more dangerous. When the boat tipped, people were screaming and crawling over each other."
I quietly stare at him. So does Patrick. Adnan stands and absent-mindedly messes up Patrick's hair. He brushes the sand off his shorts.
"I was afraid," he concedes. "Everyone was. People were crying, grabbing us and forcing us underwater. I held Nizar and tried to swim away from them."
He starts to walk down the beach for afternoon prayers, but turns around and takes a deep breath.
"Goodness: The English Dictionary defines it as a state of being virtuous and kind." He says. "It is a fitting description of Nizar."
Patrick stands up and sits beside me. I hold his hand. Adnan stares at us and smiles sadly.
“I never cried. I was afraid that, if I started, I might never stop. What does that make me that I cannot cry for my own brother?” Adnan whispers softly.
He turns to walk away and stops. “When we first met, you asked me what I pray for,” he says. He looks down at the sand. “I pray that Nizar forgives me for letting him go.”
Stay focused, I wake up the next morning and remind myself.
Yesterday, after Adnan told us about his brother, I practiced a little while longer, but it wasn't the same. Adnan and I couldn't look at each other. He didn't even say 'goodbye' when we walked from the channel and got to my house. He seemed small and frail, tottering down the road toward his house. Patrick chewed his fingernails with worry.
"He's not mad, Bugs," I reassured him while we watched Adnan. "He's sad. He had a brother, Nizar."
"Niz-ar," Patrick scrunched his face and struggled to pronounce it.
"Yes. But don't say anything," I told Patrick. "It'll make him sadder if you talk about it."
This morning, two days before The Classic, Adnan knocks on our backdoor at his usual prompt time, and we pack up and hike to the inlet. Adnan and I avoid each other's eyes. While I fish, Patrick and Adnan sit behind me and dig a hole in the sand for Patrick's starfish. With each cast, I glance over my shoulder to make sure they are OK. Usually, Adnan and Patrick quibble all morning over where to place shells and driftwood and rocks in their new hole. But both of them are quiet today.
We hike back to my house and eat lunch. Afterward, Patrick sits next to the tidal pool in the backyard, and Adnan and I ride my bike and spin wispy gray clouds off the stone dust road. It cheers up Adnan. When the afternoon sun is at its highest, the heat becomes too crushing.
"I have to take Patrick for a swim," I tell Adnan.
I roll my bike to a crash under our back deck, and Adnan and I run across the backyard. Patrick is sitting beyond the dune, out of earshot. He's talking to himself. Adnan and I stop and smile at each other.
"Shhhh," I put my finger to my lips. "Let's surprise him."
We crawl up the dune and peek up over the marsh grass.
I slip off my sneakers and the hot sand scorches the skin between my toes. We move slowly so Patrick doesn't hear us. When we get closer, Adnan and I peek at each other and stifle our laughs. Patrick is sitting upright on the bank of the pool and, beside him, his starfish is lying on top of an upended pail.
"He's talking to it," Adnan grins and whispers.
We inch closer and Patrick cups his hands into the pool and dribbles water over his starfish. One of its legs gently lifts. Patrick smiles down at it and wags his finger.
"Ni-zar," Patrick is pointing at his starfish and preaching patiently. "Your n-n-name is Ni-zar, okay?"
My face flushes and my heartbeat skips. I look at Adnan and his face is drained of color.
"I have to go." He blinks his eyes and runs through the marsh grass toward home.
It is twenty-four hours until the start of The Classic, and Adnan does not show up for this morning's practice. He has never been late. I sit at the kitchen table and try not to think about him. I focus on finding any flaws in my journal. Patrick stares out the front window for any sign of Adnan approaching, and then runs to the back window to make sure his starfish is safe.
"Get dressed, Bugs," I finally say after reading the same journal entry for the fifth time. "We'll go check on your starfish."
We push through the side door and into the backyard. On the banking, close to the marsh pool's edge, a shiny new yellow shovel rests on a patch of carefully folded grass. Patrick looks up at me and wrinkles his nose.
"Adnan must have come back and put it there last night," I answer his unasked question.
After Patrick sees that his starfish is safe, we go back into the house so I can finish my chores. At noon, there is a knock on the back door. Patrick and I scramble across the kitchen floor to open it. Adnan is standing on the porch landing. His face is blank.
"My mother…" he stammers.”She has invited the two of you for lunch?"
"Okay," I nod. "I need to get Patrick ready. We'll be down in a few minutes."
After I get Patrick cleaned up, he insists on taking his starfish.
"I don't know if that's a good idea, Bugs," I say.
"Starfish," he points to the tidal pool and says.
Adnan greets us on his back stoop. He glances at the pail hanging from Patrick's hand, and invites us into the kitchen. On the countertop, a couple of colorful, brightly colored bowls are filled with vegetables and beans. A silver pot on the stovetop spouts a funnel of steam that fogs the window above the sink. Adnan's mother is standing at the opposite end of the kitchen, smiling nervously and smoothing her robes and headscarf with the palms of her hands. Adnan says something to her that ends with the words 'Patrick and Mikaela', and she bows as if we are visiting dignitaries. I smile and nod and try not to stare.
"Nizar," Patrick blurts and holds up his pail. "This Nizar."
I gulp in a quick breath. My heart races. "Patrick…" I start to say, but am not sure what to say after that. My face flushes. I look across the kitchen at Adnan's mother, and she is smiling at Patrick. She turns and whispers to Adnan in a language I don't understand and he nods. Her hands wrestle with each other and she shuffles across the kitchen floor. When she is a few feet away from us, she stops and peers over the edge of the pail. Patrick's starfish is lying quietly on the bottom of it.
"Th-Thank you," she stutters to Patrick.
I turn and look at Adnan. "Sorry," I whisper. He shrugs.
His mother motions to the kitchen table. I put Patrick's pail in the corner of the kitchen, and we sit. She sets a platter of grilled chicken on rice in the center of the table. There are bowls filled with bright tomatoes and green beans; and a platter with warm bread.
"Thanks for having us," I say, and nudge Patrick to say the same. He ignores me. He keeps glimpsing over at his starfish. We pass each other the platter of chicken and bowls of vegetables and fill our plates. I help Patrick. We eat in silence, and the clinking of silverware echoes off the kitchen walls. I peek up and see Adnan's mom reaching across the table and spooning more rice onto his plate, and I can't help but think of how my mother used to do the same for Patrick and me.
After lunch, Patrick and I are invited into the front room for dessert. While we sit on the couch and wait for Adnan and his mother to join us, Patrick rocks back and forth.
"Calm down," I whisper. "Your starfish is fine…"
He pays no attention to me. He stands up and paces the length of the room. At the opposite end of the couch, he stops and gapes at the framed picture on the end table.
"Mikaela…?" he says and scrunches his face. He picks up the photograph and looks at me.
"Put it back," I hiss, but he brings it over and hands it to me. It's a picture of Adnan and what appears to be a smaller version of Adnan. They are waist-deep in the ocean, laughing. Whoever took the photo captured them at the precise moment both of them got the joke.
"It is Nizar," Adnan walks into the room and startles me. His mother is behind him, holding a tray filled with glasses of lemonade. She sets it down on the coffee table.
"I'm sorry," I stand up and stutter. "Patrick didn't…"
The mother speaks to Adnan, and he nods. He turns back to us and says: "My mother is happy that you are looking at it."
The skin on my face flushes. I glance down at the picture then up at her. "He's beautiful," I tell her.
Adnan flinches. He turns to his mother.
"Hmmm?" She asks him what I've said.
He points to me and speaks to her. She listens, then presses her lips together and nods. She turns and says something to Adnan and he squirms. "Yes," she puts her hand on his forearm and urges him to tell me what she has said. Adnan looks down at her hand, then turns toward me.
"My mother wants me to tell you," Adnan whispers hoarsely, "that her greatest fear is that Nizar will be forgotten."
I blush. My body tingles. I stare down at the floor.
"It's the opposite with me," I hear myself whisper. "I try to forget my mother. It hurts too much when I remember her."
No one says anything and I'm embarrassed to look up. When I finally raise my head, Adnan is studying me. I stare back at him and he smiles sadly. His mother tugs on his shirt sleeve and he turns and tells her what I said. She listens to him and frowns and tilts her head to the side. Then she turns toward me.
"Nooooo," she moans and shakes her head. "Nooooo," she takes a step and kneels in front of me and Patrick. And she starts talking, saying things we can't understand. And she keeps placing her hands over her heart. And then she reaches out with both arms and pulls the two of us close. I hug her neck and say: "I'm so sorry about your son."
It is the night before The Classic, and I am fidgety. My father has fallen asleep again on his chair in the front room. I spread a blanket across his lap. The soft skin around his eyes is grooved with wrinkles. His hands and fingers are twisted and swollen with knots and bumps. These past months have not been easy for him.
I walk upstairs. From my bedroom window, I see darkness drop from the sky and blanket the marsh. The rain pelts our roof. I slip into bed and mull over my game plan one final time. As I drift off to sleep, I push back the creeping doubts that I can win and remind myself of all of the work I've done. I want to win for Adnan and Patrick. For my father. I want to win for my mother.
It seems like only a minute later and I startle awake. It is still dark in my bedroom and I look at the clock: Midnight. Outside, the lightning crackles over the channel. My bedroom door creaks open and Patrick tiptoes past my bed to my window.
"Go back to bed, Bugs," I sit up and whisper.
"Starfish," he stares out at the tidal pool and mutters.
"He'll be OK. Go back to bed."
He shuffles over and stares down at me.
"You scared of the lightning?" I ask him.
"Alright, c'mon," I pull back my quilt and scoot close to the wall.
He slides into my bed and falls instantly asleep. Outside my window, the thunder rumbles. I reach over and brush the hair off his forehead. His mouth is partially open, and his breathing is as steady as the surf. The moonlight leaks through my window and makes shadows in the hollows of his face. I watch him and wonder if he dreams.
I open my eyes, peep at the nightstand clock: 4:30. It's go time!
It's still dark, and I no longer hear the rain drumbeating our roof. Patrick sleeps beside me with his mouth open. I slip out of bed, stagger downstairs and put the coffee on. You got this, I remind myself. Upstairs, I hear my father's footsteps, and I tiptoe out the backdoor to check the weather.
A light wind swirls my hair. I walk down the stairs and when I get to the bottom one, I step down into cold water. My breath catches. I scan the surrounding area. The channels crested last night, and floodwaters have covered the marsh. A ribbon of pale moonlight bounces up from the glassy sheet that is now the ground. My thoughts race: The flat rock at the inlet will be submerged. Should I stay at the jetty or move to the channel mouth? I take a deep breath, slow down my mind, and think. In weather like this, the fish will swim for cover in the deep pools along the jetty. That's where I'll go. My breathing steadies. I start to step up the stairs and glance in the back yard.
"No, no, no," I say. I bust through the back door, and my father is in the kitchen pouring a cup of coffee from the pot. He turns around and smiles nervously.
"Are you ready….?"
"The starfish!" I cut him off.
I grab the long flashlight hanging in the back hallway and slosh out back to the tidal pool. It's gone. The whole marsh is one big tidal pool. I turn on the flashlight and sweep the light beam across the flattened seagrass. The wet ground is strewn with shells and seaweed as if a hurricane has passed. I hear a splash behind me, and my father is gently pushing away blades of sea grass with his foot.
"Anything?" he asks.
"I don't know where it is," I say.
We keep searching. We fan out to cover as much ground as we can. After a while, I hear more splashing. I look up and see Adnan running toward us.
"Did you find it?" He is breathing heavily.
"No," I say.
"Does he know yet?" He turns around and scans our house.
I shake my head and keep combing through the grass. A short while later, Patrick busts through the back door of our house wearing only pajama bottoms. His eyes are opened wide.
"Mikaelaaaaa," he moans. "Mikaelaaaaa."
He wanders in a circle around the area where his tidal pool was a few hours ago. I don't make eye contact with him. I just can't. The four of us rake through the flooded marsh in the dark, turning over rocks, piling clumps of seaweed, and separating the marsh grass until their knife-edges made hairline slices across our hands and wrists.
Just as the sun is coming up, my father wades over to me.
"It's getting late," he whispers. "You and Adnan go on to the tournament. I'll stay here with Patrick."
I glance at Patrick. He is bent over, inspecting the muddy ground beneath an overhanging rock.
"A few more minutes," I shake my head. My father nods and continues sifting through the grass.
"C'mon," I whisper to myself. "Please be okay."
I try not to think about time. I grab a garden rake from behind the house and use it to push away wide strips of grass and storm debris. I work my way toward the road. After what seems like only seconds, my father wanders over to me again.
"You're not going to make it if you don't leave now," he whispers. "Go on. Take Adnan. I'll stay. You worked hard for this."
"OK," I nod and put down the rake. I turn. Thirty feet away, Patrick and Adnan are lifting a driftwood log and examining the ground beneath it.
"We'll find it," Adnan stands up and says to Patrick. "I promise, we'll find it."
"Five more minutes," I tell my father, and bend over and pick up the rake.
My father stops reminding me about The Classic's start time after the sun comes up, and he knows it's too late. Adnan is so focused on finding Patrick's starfish that I think he probably just forgot about it for a while. We fan out away from the tidal pool and separate. I'm half-looking for the starfish. The other half of me wants to fall and cry. There'll be no trophy this year; no picture on the front page of the newspaper. While we're searching, the overflow trickles back into the ebbing channels. The sun re-bakes the wet earth and awakens a family of rippling spooks that floats over the fields. I search along the road and find the starfish close to the area where Patrick first discovered it.
"Dad," I call out.
He looks up and hurries over to me. The starfish is lying on the stone dust in front of our feet. It must have tried to camouflage itself before it died because it is pale gray around its edges. We stand there and stare down at it - dried and crispy and absent of the bright pink and purple colors that had made it beautiful.
"Jesus." Dad shakes his head.
Patrick sees us staring at the ground and sprints across the marsh. He pushes between us and looks down. "What?" He asks with alarm, and bends over and picks up his starfish. It makes a crackling sound when he separates it from the roadway. It is as stiff as a rice cake, and he turns around and holds it out in front of him with both hands.
"Dad," he wails. "Put in pool!"
My father spreads his arms and scoops him up. "I know, Bugs." Dad says. "I know."
Adnan hears the commotion from where he's still searching up by the bus stop. He races down the stone dust road with panic in his eyes.
"Adnan!" I try to warn him, but he runs past me and stops; stands and watches my father comforting Patrick.
"Nizar," Adnan whispers and drops to his knees.
And - in an act I can't imagine having ever happened before - I stand helplessly and watch a charming Syrian teenage boy bury his face in his hands and inconsolably weep over the passing of a starfish.
"Oh Dad, please," I finally say, and hurry over to where he is hugging Patrick. "Help me fix my heart."
We buried Patrick's starfish on the shore close to the community dock. My father came with us. After it was over, he pulled me aside: "Your mother would be proud of you."
"I miss her, Dad," I said, and held his hand.
The day after we buried Patrick's starfish, we found out one of those New York 'ringers' won The Classic. He netted a measly twenty-nine pounds of fish. Adnan was outraged.
"Next year we will set records that will never be broken!" Adnan shook his fist and vowed.
At our community's summer end cookout, all the marsh families get together on the shorefront and celebrate another season of fishing. There's a clam and lobster bake, and families cook freshly caught striped bass and bluefish on their charcoal grills. Folks set up tables and bring their dogs, and we play horseshoes in the sand while the women talk and the men drink beer and relive their summer's close calls on the water.
While I'm helping to put plates on one of the tables, I glance up and see Adnan and his parents walking over the dune toward our cookout. His mother is dressed in her usual flowing robes and headscarf, and his father looks skinny, tired and meek. Adnan is out in front of them. When they get to the beach, everyone at the cookout stops and looks at each other. Adnan and his family stop, too. And then Patrick sees them. He runs across the beach and hugs Adnan's mother around the legs, and that seems to break some kind of tension as if some secret code word has been muttered. Some of the women stroll over and introduce themselves as best they can. They help Adnan's parents with the platters of food they're carrying. A couple of the men walk over and shake Adnan's father's hand. Even grumpy old Mr. Creegan, who was wary of refugees moving into our community a couple of months ago, warms up after he tastes Adnan's mother's lamb kabobs.
"Young Fella," he sits on his beach chair and jabbers to Adnan. "You tell your mother this is the best piece of lamb I've ever eaten."
After lunch, all of us kids go swimming in the channel. Adnan does, too. Well, up to his knees, anyway. But, knees are deeper than ankles. At least he's headed in the right direction.
I splash in the surf like a seal pup full of mischief. I poke my head above the surface of the water and scan the shore. Patrick and my father are sitting on the beach on a quiet spot away from the cookout. They're digging a pool in the sand. Patrick stands up, holds up his index finger and says something to my father. I smile. "Ju-Just once," I can almost hear him saying. He runs off and plods into the bordering marsh. He high steps through the waxy blades of knee-high grass and away from my father. And then he suddenly stops.
And when he bends over, I know that he's looking into a marsh pool.
I stand up, close my eyes, whisper a silent prayer that the wind on my face will find Patrick, and scatter his spirit across the marsh. I am luckier than most to have been born who I am; in a place where I belong.
I never understood why the tides changed.
I open my eyes, and Patrick is stumbling out of the marsh and running toward my father. His hands are cupped in front of him, tenderly cradling his newest treasure.
Beth Dyer Clary
9/15/2020 11:47:40 am
Thoroughly enjoyed reading this story. Heart-breaking and tender. The author's use of the setting is a marvel. I felt I was there through all the weather and the changing tides.
9/20/2020 09:21:55 am
So touching, without being sentimental. Wonderful details. The upbeat ending was real and flowed smoothly.
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