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For Caroline, Gus and Rosie;
and to the memory of
John N. Cole (1923-2003)
I stand as on some mighty eagle’s beak,
Eastward the sea absorbing, viewing, (nothing but sea and sky,)
The tossing waves, the foam, the ships in the distance,
The wild unrest, the snowy, curling caps—that inbound urge and urge of waves,
Seeking the shores forever.
From Montauk Point
Table of Contents
About the Publisher
Conrad knew it was a body the moment he started hauling on the net. The weight was there, rising and falling in the swell between the beach and the outer bar, but where was the familiar twitch of the line in his hands, the urgent pulse of fish thumping against the mesh? He said nothing to Rollo, but a stolen glance confirmed that his friend had sensed it too.
Some forty yards down the beach Rollo’s gaze was fixed on the bobbing cork line that arced through the ocean between the two men. He was searching the crescent of enclosed water for signs that he was mistaken—fleeting shadows in a cresting wave, the silver flicker of a surface break.
Conrad dug the heels of his waders deep into the sand and hauled hand over hand in unison with Rollo. He felt the chill wind of fatalism blow through him, calming. Further speculation was useless. In a few minutes the net and its cargo would be drawn into the pounding surf, raised high on a breaker—a momentary offering—then unceremoniously dumped on the beach.
The first light of dawn was creeping over the horizon when Conrad was roused from his slumber by Rollo’s hollering. Conrad only ever slumbered, he never slept, not the sleep of a child, dead to the world, its oversized surroundings. One small part of his brain kept constant vigil, snatching at the slightest noise or shift in smell. It no longer bothered him. He accepted it for what it was: a part of him now, like the scar in his side and the remorseless throb of his damaged knee.
The boards groaned under his feet as he shuffled from his shack on to the narrow deck that ringed it. The sharp salt air stabbed his lungs, raw from too many cigarettes the previous evening. As if in reprimand, an overflowing ashtray still sat on the arm of the slatted wooden chair out front. A book lay face down on an upturned fish crate beside the molten remains of a candle and an all-but-empty bottle of cheap Imperial whiskey.
He had read deep into the night, the bugs dancing dangerously close to the candle flame until it had finally sputtered and died. The waxing moon, so high and prominent at dusk, had long departed, having run her early course; and for a further hour he had sat in the deep darkness, breathing in time to the beat of the waves beyond the high beachbank, sleep rising up around him like the unseen tide, his mind numbed by the liquor, his body by the blanket of night-dew settling over him.
Conrad stared at the chair, unable to recall the short stroll he must surely have made from the abandoned perch to his bed.
The cries were closer now, carried on the breeze, but Rollo was nowhere to be seen among the tumbling dunes. Conrad guessed that when he finally appeared he’d be flailing his arms like a windmill. He always did when he was excited or running. Right now, it sounded like he was doing both.
A few moments later Rollo hove in sight. Sure enough, his arms were slicing the air. He bounded down the face of the dune, hurdling a large clump of beach grass, stumbling momentarily but recovering his footing. He was panting, sucking in air, when he finally drew to a halt by the shack. Conrad waited for him to catch his breath.
Rollo’s lank dark hair was streaked by the sun and the salt air as it always was at this time of year. When he finally looked up and smiled, his teeth stood out like bleached bone against the deep amber of his skin.
‘You’re not wearin’ no clothes.’
‘Well, what do you know?’ Conrad allowed a note of mild irritation to creep into his voice.
‘Go get togged up.’
‘This better be good.’
‘Oh, it’s good, it’s good.’
They paused as they reached the top of the high dune that separated Conrad’s isolated home from the ocean. Overhead, a handful of stars winked their final farewells in the brightening sky. Beneath them, the broad beach stretched off to the western horizon, one hundred miles of almost unbroken sand, straight as a yard-arm, reaching into the heart of New York City.
A few miles to the east, beyond the sandy lowlands of Napeague where they now stood, rose the high ground of Montauk—a noble upthrust of ridged and pitted glacial moraine at the very tip of the South Fork: Long Island’s last defiant cry before it tumbled into the oblivion of the Atlantic. Beyond lay nothing but water…and the lost dreams of the Old World.
The ocean was suspiciously calm and limpid, the towering breakers the only indication of the powerful forces that lurked beneath its pewter skin. Even from here, Conrad could see that the longshore set was still running west to east—a sporadic event that occurred when a tendril of warm water broke free of the Gulf Stream, snaking northwards, assisted on its lazy passage by a sustained southwesterly blow.
The marked rise in sea temperature was welcomed by the everincreasing number of city people who populated the ocean beach from Memorial Day to Labor Day. It lured them beyond the relative safety of the crashing surf into the deeper water with its counterintuitive jostle of currents. Fortunately, the warmer waters were awash with bait, and with the bait came the predators, bluefish and striped bass, which in turn attracted an even larger predator—man.
Many owed their lives to the happy conjunction of treacherous swimming conditions and increased fishing activity off the ocean beach. Many were those who’d been plucked limp and spluttering from the water into one of the cumbersome little dories used by the local surfmen. Once deposited safely on the beach, embarrassment—more often than not—would get the better of gratitude, and they’d hurry off, eager to banish the memory, casting a few mumbled words of thanks over their shoulders as they went. This wasn’t always the case.
Everyone knew the story of Gus Bowyer, how he had returned to his shingled home on Atlantic Avenue one afternoon to find a gleaming new motor car standing beside the old barn out back. The handwritten note attached to the windshield meant little to Gus, who was unable to read or write, and he’d been obliged to wait two puzzling hours for his wife’s return from Montauk, where she worked as a dispatch clerk for the Long Island Rail Road. Within a few minutes of crossing the threshold, Edna Bowyer informed her husband that they were now the proud owners of a Dodge Special Type-B Sedan—a gift from a gangling New York architect whom Gus had saved from near-certain drowning off the ocean beach the previous month.
News of the couple’s windfall soon spread, and for the remainder of the summer, bathers who were even so much as tumbled by a wave would find themselves descended upon by a pack of alert and overly obliging local fishermen. Edna, a pillar of Puritan common sense, had urged Gus to return the overstated vehicle to the Halsey Auto Company in East Hampton and recoup the purchase price in cash. God knows, they needed the money. Twenty-two years on, they still needed the money and Gus was still driving the hulking Dodge around the back roads of Amagansett.
‘She’s on the turn,’ said Rollo, meaning the set, not the tide. The wind had come around overnight. By noon the vast body of water in motion would grind to a halt then slowly turn back on itself. The natural order would prevail once more with the current scouring the coast from east to west. Interesting, but hardly worthy of a pre-dawn rousing.
‘Remind me to be angry with you when I wake,’ muttered Conrad, turning to leave.
Everyone knew the call to arms, though it was no longer heard on the South Fork of Long Island, the days of shore whaling some forty years past. Conrad turned back slowly.
‘Bound east’rd inside the bar.’
‘’Less you saw a fifty-foot bass before,’ grinned Rollo, pleased with his riposte.
They scanned the ocean in silence, with just the hoarse cries of a few black-backed gulls wheeling overhead on dawn patrol. Suddenly, Rollo’s arm shot out. A patch of whorls and eddies ruffled the still surface of the ocean a hundred yards directly offshore. A few moments later, the whale broke water and blew—two distinct jets, fanned by the wind, caught in the sun’s earliest rays.
‘Right whale,’ observed Rollo, identifying the species from its forked spout. But Conrad was already gone, padding down the side of the dune on to the beach. The whale blew four more times before sounding.
For over an hour they tracked the leviathan on its journey eastwards, their faces warmed by the rising sun. They walked in silence, not needing to share their thoughts.
Right whales hadn’t been sighted off Amagansett for decades. Hunted to near extinction, they had once been a cornerstone of life on the South Fork. Three hundred years previously, when a straggle of English families first appeared in the woods a few miles to the west, they found the local Montaukett Indians already preying on the migrating schools that roamed the ocean beach, going off through the treacherous winter surf in their dugout canoes. With the crude geometry of a child, those first white settlers pegged out a community around a slender marsh, fashioning cellar-shelters from the trees they had felled, naming their new home Maidstone after the English town in the county of Kent where most had sprung from.
Fourteen years later, when the hamlet rechristened itself East Hampton, the dwellings had crept above ground, the early ‘soddies’ replaced by New England saltbox houses clad in cypress shingles and insulated against the sharp winters with seaweed and corncobs; the marsh had been excavated to create the Town Pond; and the townsmen were in effective control of a small, burgeoning and highly profitable shore-whaling industry.
‘Away with you. Hoooo. Woooo.’
Conrad was dimly aware that they’d passed the Napeague Coast Guard station. Now Rollo was striding towards the water’s edge waving his arms in front of him. The whale had altered its course and was heading inshore at an angle to the beach. With a lazy flick of its giant flukes it sounded.
‘She’s goin’ to beach,’ cried Rollo. He started running, set on heading the whale off.
When Conrad caught up with him he was standing in the wash, oblivious to the waves breaking around him, scouring the ocean. Without warning, the whale surfaced beyond the white water to their left. At this short distance, the sheer bulk of the creature was overwhelming. It filled their field of vision, deadening all other senses.
‘Hooo. Woooo. Yaaaaa. YAAAA—’
A rogue wave caught Rollo broadside, slapping the wind from his lungs, sending him sprawling. Conrad hauled him to his feet, dragging him up the beach, but Rollo pulled free, stumbling back into the wash. The waves became clouded with rile, churned sand where the whale had grounded.
Conrad was struck by the bitter irony of the sight—Rollo Kemp, grandson of the legendary whaleman Cap’n Josh Kemp, the last man to take a whale off the ocean beach; Rollo Kemp pathetically hurling handfuls of wet sand in a vain bid to save a creature his grandfather had devoted a lifetime to slaughtering. Laughter filled his head. It was a few moments before he realized the sound was coming from behind him.
Gabe Cowan, Chief Boatswain’s Mate of the Napeague Coast Guard station, stood chortling uncontrollably, his creased face like weathered oilskin. A good-natured man, and a first-rate fiddler till arthritis turned his hands to gnarled claws, Conrad’s reproachful look seemed only to amuse him further.
‘It’s them krill,’ said Gabe.
‘Come up on the Gulf Stream then pushed inshore. She’s feedin’, off of the krill.’ He laughed some more.
Beyond the prancing figure of Rollo, the whale had turned parallel to the beach, sieving its breakfast from the ocean.
Conrad hurried over to Rollo. ‘Rollo, she’s feeding…’
Deaf to his words, Rollo’s face was wet with spray and tears. Conrad seized him, binding his arms to his sides, holding him tight.
‘It’s okay, she’s just feeding on krill,’ he said gently. Rollo’s struggles subsided, his eyes searching Conrad’s face.
‘Never seen it before,’ muttered Gabe, appearing beside them. ‘Sight to behold, boys, sight to behold.’
Conrad only released Rollo when he started to laugh. ‘Go get ’em,’ he yelled. ‘Go get ‘em krill!’
Maybe his cries startled the whale, more than likely she had had her fill, but with some difficulty she swung herself around and headed offshore, presenting first her small end and then the giant fan of her tail as she kicked below the surface. They waited, watching. She showed briefly just beyond the outer bar, blowing only once before disappearing for good.
A summer flounder flapped weakly at the edge of the wash, stunned by its encounter with the whale.
‘Well, what do you know…’ said Gabe, taking two nimble strides and stamping down with the heel of his boot. ‘Lunch.’
They accompanied Gabe back to the Coast Guard station, reflecting on what they’d just witnessed. As far as any of them knew, the coastal wanderings of right whales had always been confined to the colder months, June at the very latest. What was it doing here at this time of year? Had it been alone? Where was it headed? Conrad contributed his share of idle banter, but his thoughts were elsewhere. The episode was somehow emblematic of the times. It was as if the turbulence of the past years had infected the ocean as well, disturbing the natural rhythms, disorienting its occupants.