When we step out of our motel room, someone is throwing bread crumbs off the balcony above us. Sea gulls are everywhere, swooping and squawking.
“Hurry,” my husband says as we make our way through them.
When we look back from the beach, the ground where the birds are feeding is undulating like a gray, feathered ocean. “I’ve never seen so many sea gulls,” he says. “There must be hundreds of them.”
“That’s nothing,” I say. “Just before my father came home from Vietnam in ’68, there were ravens everywhere. Sitting on top of the streetlights. Shitting all over the sidewalks.”
He frowns. The word shit always disturbs him, especially when I say it.
I point to a cruise ship headed north toward Alaska, hoping to divert his attention, but his frown intensifies as if he’s spotted a storm he needs to keep his eye on.
“Ravens on streetlights? Where was that?”
“Southwest Colorado,” I say.
“Hmm,” he says. He takes his pen out of his pocket and sights the ship along it, calibrating the craft’s size by marking its length on the pen and dividing it by the expanse of the horizon. It’s one of those strange things he does that I like about him.
We pick up shells and small pieces of driftwood. He whistles one of his tuneless phrases and laughs a little when I begin whistling with him. I think perhaps we are finished with ravens. He’s capable of that — of setting one thing aside and moving easily on to something else. It’s a thing I’m trying to learn to do myself.
“I was thinking about the first time we were here,” he says. He points to a brick condominium he thinks is on the site of the cabin we stayed in nearly ten years ago. I remember the cabin as being farther off, closer to the mouth of the Chetco River, but I don’t argue. “The salmon were running,” he says. “Remember?”
I do remember: their blue heads thrusting above the water, their bodies leaping against the current, eyes glazed as if they knew what they were doing might destroy them. In the restaurant that evening, when I saw salmon on the menu, I lost my appetite altogether.
I take his arm and keep walking. Breathe sea air. Pick up small pieces of driftwood for the shelf in the bathroom.
When we reach a place where a cliff juts out into the water, we turn around. Above us, more gulls peer down, checking to see if we have anything to give them. He frowns again, as if they were vultures that might drop down and clamp their talons onto our shoulders.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I was thinking that it would be easy to mistake pigeons on top of streetlights for ravens.”
“They weren’t pigeons,” I say quietly.
“Perhaps they were crows,” he says.
“Crows are smaller and more gregarious. Ravens have shaggy throats. And they don’t caw. They sound like this.” I make a crucking noise just like a raven.
He smiles, but sticks his hands far down into his pockets. “I’ve only seen ravens in the country. I have a hard time believing they’d come into the city in droves like that.”
“I have a hard time believing it myself.”
But there they were, all over the tops of the buildings. Huge black birds lined up on ledges. From where I sat in the dentist’s chair above Graden’s Mercantile, my mother in the waiting room, I could see them clearly. Between Richey’s Drug Store and the First National Bank, they were so thick people had to walk with newspapers over their heads to keep from getting raven shit all over them.
“In 1968,” he says, “you’d have barely been five.”
“Four,” I say. And then I’m marching down the beach ahead of him. That’s how it goes, I tell myself. You go to the beach to escape from life in the present, and a flock of gulls sweep in, dragging the past behind them.
“I know about birds,” I say when he catches up with me.
“I know you do.”
At the water’s edge, a child in a blue swimsuit runs into the waves and scrambles backward, squealing. A black Lab leaps high into the air, catches the stick someone has thrown, and then races along the shoreline.
“I don’t know how you could go off and leave Buster locked up in a kennel,” I tell him. It’s a mean, unfair thing to say. When he suggested we leave Buster, I didn’t object.
“He’d be jumping up on people, kicking sand on everyone,” he reminds me, but all I can see is how happy Buster would have been. Running and leaping. All that pleasure gone rampant.
“Shit,” I say. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“Please don’t,” he says. He takes hold of my arm and leads me to a high spot where whole trunks of trees, whitened by sand and sun and sea, are piled up against each other. They’re beautiful in a way. All that whiteness. Those huge, old bodies.
“Sit down,” he says. “Sit right down here beside me.”
I do as he says. I look at the ocean.
While I try to quiet my mind, he sits cross-legged on a log, his body between me and anyone who might look in our direction. He digs holes in the sand with a stick and offers to build me a sand castle, a complete house out of driftwood. I know he would drive three hours back to get Buster if I asked him.
Finally, he offers to get me some lemonade.
“That would be nice,” I say.
“You’ll sit here until I get back?”
“I’ll be right here,” I say, but when he starts down the beach toward the cafe, moving steadily along as if a fine wire connected him to it, I am already far off, lost all over again.
Buster was with me, his whole body wagging, his golden-retriever face smiling whenever he looked back and saw me. Down the sidewalk and across the street and up onto another sidewalk. Another street. Another sidewalk. Walking and walking as if, once we’d gotten started, nothing could stop us.
“I’m sorry,” I said when my husband came to get us. “I just stepped outside to get the newspaper. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Thank you,” he said to the owner of the antique store, who had ushered me in when she saw me walk past her window. “Thank you so much.” He took hold of my arm with one hand and Buster’s collar with the other.
“I was fine until it started raining,” I said as he leaned down to close the car door. He nodded and said, “It’s all right,” but when he crossed in front of the car, the rain pouring down around him, his face was like an old mirror cracked in a thousand tiny places.
He drove with his eyes set on the road, as if every car we met might veer into us if he looked away for a second. I sat beside him in a dress with a high white collar and pointy-toed, lace-up shoes of the sort women had worn nearly a century ago — clothes the store owner had loaned me. In the back seat, Buster circled and circled, making a place to lie down in, and then he was quiet.
“Thank God for Mrs. Weddle,” my husband said finally, as if the woman who owned the antique shop were someone we knew, rather than a stranger who’d helped me.
“It’s the sort of thing that happens when we’re preoccupied,” he said, struggling to make it sound normal. “On the freeway, we can drive right past an exit we take every day, without even noticing.”
“I suppose,” I said.
I didn’t tell him that when I’d asked Mrs. Weddle to call Dr. Kleinschmidt in the university’s history department, the word Kleinschmidt had sounded more like the name of my uncle’s old dachshund than the name of my husband.
“I know where I am now,” I said when we reached Seventh Street and Shadowbrook Lane, but my husband didn’t answer. He just kept his eyes on the road, as if his face were a clock and inside his head tiny wheels were turning, intersecting each other, moving time relentlessly forward, indifferent to everything around them.
“I was in my nightgown,” I said, so softly I wasn’t sure he’d hear me.
“Jesus Christ,” he said.
At the curbs, the trees all had their arms up. All the buildings we drove past were watching us out of high, flat faces, their doors closed, their windows gaping.
When I look up, people are hurrying along the beach, my husband among them. His legs open and close like the blades of scissors as he strides through the sand carrying two paper cups far out in front of him, being careful not to spill a drop. Beyond him, just below our motel, a crowd is gathering around a large brown mound. A creature that has washed up on the shore. A creature I hope is already dead and not lying there suffering.
People in business suits walk down from the shops along the boardwalk. A woman in a navy blue suit steps out of a large black car, and her high heels sink into the sand as she hurries across it. Two men in swimming trunks are running along the beach with a big net between them.
I get up. Seeing me stand, my husband switches directions and angles across the beach toward me like a sheepdog who’s seen a lamb about to make a break for it.
“Perhaps you shouldn’t look,” he says when he reaches me.
But I push my way through the crowd until I see what is lying there.
The face of a dead sea lion is a face that can destroy you — like a human’s face, only far more innocent. A face with its eyes and mouth open, as if at the last moment it saw something and was about to cry out against it. A sound that would change tides. A sound so terrible the ocean would have to rush back in around it. A sound that would throw you to your knees if you heard it.
When a fetus comes out before it is time, the sound it makes against the delivery table is the sound an orange would make if dropped from a few inches. A thunking sound. In a jar, it would look like an orange with a thick peel, gray and waterlogged. But inside it is a tiny being curled in upon itself. Tiny arms wrapped around its knees, a tiny heart beating so quietly you feel rather than hear it. A being that sits there, forehead pressed against those tiny knees, waiting so quietly most people don’t even notice, wanting one chance so fiercely it sends out tentacles and wraps them around your spine while the gurney is wheeling you down the hallway. It hangs on with such force that when the flood is carrying it away, part of your spine goes with it. Inside you, a tentacle is still hanging on, still waiting, long past when the lights have been turned off and everyone else has gone home for the evening.
When it happens, the obstetrician says, “Miscarriage is nature’s way of taking care of a problem.” When it happens again, there are tests and X-rays and scientific explanations.
There are things you do not tell your obstetrician, or anyone else, for that matter. They would say you can’t walk around with a vertebra missing. They would tell you that the uterus is not connected to the spine, that a fetus has no tentacles. They would say that a three-month fetus looks nothing like what you’ve imagined.
When I wake in the night, Mrs. Weddle is there, but I know that if I open my eyes, she won’t be. I won’t be in her shop at all. I’ll be in a motel room with a balcony, my husband beside me in the queen-sized bed.
Mrs. Weddle: A small woman made even smaller by all that bending over. A woman I may never see again. A woman whose gnarled hands trembled when she touched me. The kind of woman who can start you to crying.
It’s all in the way she comes out of her shop and says, “Come in here, my dear,” as soon as she sees you on the sidewalk in your nightgown, your dog beside you. It’s the way she says, “There, there,” though she has no idea what’s wrong. The way she clutches at her own breast when you try to tell her.
And your crying is the kind that, once started, could go on forever. The kind set off by little things: A small gray junco crashing into the window. A lily blooming unexpectedly in the garden. A husband who closes the door more and more quietly behind him. The face of a dead sea lion.
In the morning, when my husband and I look out the sliding glass door to the balcony, we see two people in green uniforms walking down the beach with shovels. We think they can’t possibly have come to bury the sea lion that has lain all night on the sand. But that is exactly what they are doing.
At first, I think they are both men: a stocky, middle-aged man and a frail, older man whose motions are so slow I think he’s too old for this work, that he shouldn’t be doing it.
Ahead of them, the sea lion waits, a great brown mound whose skeleton I can already see protruding from where its head was, hunks of flesh gone from its side as if some scavenger has come in the night and taken huge bites from it. I tell myself it must be my imagination. Such things don’t happen so quickly.
As it turns out, the older man is actually a woman who seems to grow stronger as she takes deep scoops of sand and tosses them behind her. When she removes her jacket, I see breasts rise and fall beneath her shirt. What looked like short gray hair at the edges of her cap is blond hair that she’s pushed up underneath it.
While she pulls long poles from a pile of driftwood, the other worker climbs out of the hole they’ve dug and takes out a red cloth. I think he’s going to flag the grave site with it, but instead he wipes his face and neck and then shakes the cloth over the grave, a gesture that seems strangely comic. I hurry to get my binoculars to watch what I’m certain will be the long, tedious process of prying the sea lion from its resting place, but before I can get from one side of the motel room to the other, it is over.
“It was as if the sea lion were on rollers,” my husband says. “Once they put the poles against it, it just slid into the grave.”
And now the two of them are shoveling again. When they’ve finished, they walk back down the beach together.
There is only a swirl in the sand, as if someone has stirred it with a big stick. I picture the sea lion underground, already decomposing, changing from one significant matter into another.
A sea gull floats down, and then another, and another. Along the shoreline, they stand at angles to each other, looking across the water as if each were studying a different spot on the horizon.
“Perhaps it was the war,” I say to my husband while he is putting on his socks. I say it softly, for I know I am about to upset him. “Maybe the ravens sensed that something was terribly wrong in the world, and they thronged into the city, trying to escape it.”
He stiffens for a moment, one sock on, the other still in his hand, his eyes set on the wall in front of him. I think he looks like a long-legged bird who stands on one leg, or who puts one leg so closely behind the other, it gives that impression.
“During World War II, Japanese planes dropped balloons with bombs in them along the Pacific Northwest,” he says. “Officials knew, but they were afraid people would panic, so they kept it a secret.” He pauses as if he were giving a lecture and anticipating a question from one of his students. His voice, when he continues, is so soft I can barely hear him. “In the spring of 1945, five children and a young pregnant woman were killed by one of those bombs in Lake County, Oregon,” he says. “The husband was still at the car when his wife called to him from a creek below. She said they’d found something. Before he could get down there, the bomb exploded. Trees and earth and parts of bodies were thrown all over the hillside.”
He sits down on the edge of the bed and looks at his sock. “They were on a picnic, for Christ’s sake,” he says. And then he rolls the top of his sock slowly up his leg, as if it were a task so difficult he’s not sure he can complete it.
“Those poor children,” I say.
“That poor woman,” he says. “That poor husband.”
While I’m showering, I think about what he’s said. I can hear him in the next room. Opening one drawer after another. Lifting out clothes and putting them back in the suitcase. Moving about in the methodical way he’s always gone about living.
While I’m drying my hair, the suitcase snaps shut. The bed creaks. Then comes a silence so deep I think he may have left the room without my noticing. I am about to call out to him when I hear him sigh: three times, a long pause after each one. Deep, shuddering sounds, like those a crying child makes before falling asleep. The kind of sound that can break you apart.
And then the bed creaks again.
“I’m ready whenever you are,” he says quietly, and then he goes out the door.
I can hear him walking down the steps to the ground floor, the metal of the banister ringing slightly when he touches it.
For the first time in a long, long while, I think we might make it. The two of us together. Or separately, even.