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"The Voice on the Beach," short story excerpt

Thursday 7/8/21

In the coastal town where I grew up, everyone was responsible for a girl that no one knew and none of us could see.

It was a place that you accepted as right, after a fashion, and definitive after another, like nothing was amiss within the rules, values, standards, and context of that place, though an outsider wouldn’t get it.

There was an old man, for instance, named Shedman, who had this fish shack that he opened at dawn every morning, having caught all of the fish he’d need for the day by himself. You couldn’t puzzle out how he could have landed sufficient scrod, dab, and scup in time, usually with a Medusa's tangle of eels, too, nor how he required no outside help from the catches of any other fisherman who helped stock the various stores and restaurants. Just like you wouldn’t know why some parts of a pond were warm, and other parts of the same pond were cold.

Kids scheme to stay up late, but in the summers I did everything to get out of bed early so I could run down to the beach, my legs aching like I was old, stiff from sleep, and I’d see Shedman coming up the slope of sand. Over each shoulder he’d have a string of fish. They reminded me of the braids my sister had and that was the closest I came to liking her when I was a child.

If you saw someone walking that early through the mist, and you asked what they were doing, they’d say, “rescuing the girl,” but it’s not what Shedman would say. It was an expression, like seeing a man about a horse, or how my elderly uncle said his knee ached before it rained. “Smell that?” my uncle would add, and the thunder that hadn’t happened yet was so close to your face as to practically be in your mouth.

You could hear the girl at certain times of the morning. Drowning out there in the surf. You’d hear her exactingly—the water entering her lungs, that sound of bubbles coming over the top of her voice, making the voice go away. No matter how loud the surf was.

A person might run into the water, bend down, feel desperately, jabbing their arms into the tide, scattering horseshoe crabs, and get their hands on something that felt like a body, though you only saw air, the foam over your fingertips.

And you could lug that body—no matter how tiny you were—up the shore, throw it down on the sand, and start to hear breathing again. That was said to be the beginning of a good day or a prosperous season or a healthy newborn or favorable luck. Was something you indulged in, the upkeep of local lore. But if you were a kid, you could come close to believing it.


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