Then when the tide pulled back, tugging the sand with infant fingers, I gained berth between the bluff and the sea.
My map, an ancient piece of wisdom passed along to me by a local salt who was as skeptical of my journey as he was the cause of it, told me the bluff would only be passible when the tide was at -5 feet. My tide-table, a much more modern contrivance that took all the mystery out of the lunar whims, showed I had only a half-hour this day to enjoy passage along the rocks before the gray water began heaving itself against them again. It would not withdraw far enough again for two days, at which time I would be making my return if the trip went as planned. Travel over the bluff and into the headlands was possible, but undesirable, for nature hadn't provided for it, instead laying all along that route a furious tangle of tropical sinew. Only a machete and nine hours of hard thrashing labor would deliver me to the next beach by that means. I would need to seize the brief low tide if I hoped to complete my journey at all.
The night before had been pleasant if hot. Seaweed stranded by the last high tide emitted a fermenting stench as it rotted in the heat and was consumed by black flies the size of fleas. I erected no shelter and slept not in my bedroll but under it, using it as a narrow and heavy blanket. The sand was my mattress. The bedroll was awkward and I recollect, barely, stirring in my rest and twitching my legs against the bulky canvas mass. But eventually I fell into a deep slumber and I awoke that morning with a start, knowing even before I looked at my wristwatch that my time to quit the night's camp and embark through the rare passage was near upon me.
Yet despite my fleeting window of time and the peril that faced me if I missed it, I battled against a queer reluctance to leave. With my bedroll and fishing rod attached with old twine to my rucksack and my navigation equipment secured away, I simply sat in the sand for an indeterminate time that morning looking at the lowlight hum of the morning sun, which was made formless by a flat gray veil of clouds over the water, and listening to the swishing murmurs of low tide. I fear I almost fell back asleep staring into that warm void which felt like love. I was finally aroused by the sweet, humid musk of a flower common in these coastal woods—confederate jasmine—that must have ridden a downdraught from some unseen upland prairie; I stood up, brushed the loose sand from trousers, and made my leave. My clip was the guilty one of a man who knows he's tarried too long in a mistress's chamber.
The bluff stood to my right, a sheer 100 feet above the ocean. Seams in the rock ran vertically and uniformly along the entire, mile-long stretch of cliff. Some vaguely remembered lecture told me the ribbed form dated back to a sudden hardening of lava which locked the rock into a basic and simple crystalline form. As I went along, the seams—made black by soggy moss that gained purchase in the crack--passed me like telephone poles pass a slow moving train. To my left, in the water, sharp pyramids and flat podiums of rock stood sentry as the ocean brooded around them. The water was still but for a thin respiratory lap every seven seconds or so and some small eddies that twisted seafoam around like yellow-white taffy. The churning and turbid water immediately suggested to me its violent energies were being replenished. The wet sand, unaccustomed to my human foot, let out a fizz of bubbles each time I stepped and made me feel a trespasser on the rarely exposed land. The air smelled entirely of salt as remnant pockets of seawater dripped from the cliff, drips I could clearly hear for the air was still and silent. It altogether felt like I had just walked into a room where not an hour before a loud orgy had taken place, and stood still now only to let the revelers refill their drinks.
From the bluff, my destination stood eight hours before me and this would not be my last low-tide passage. But none were as perilous as this and I knew that if I gained the next beach without being swept away by a rouge swell I would arrive intact. My destination was a small cove where, on word from the old fisherman who outfitting me with my map, I would find sea cod of uncommon size. The cove had a narrow mouth to the ocean that was continually bombarded by a raging surf, thus protecting it from commercial fishing vessels. As I was now learning, the sea protected the cove from overland travelers just as well. But the pool was deep, he'd plumbed it at 200 feet and ran out of rope before reaching the bottom, and the bounty was plentiful. I did not want to believe it, it seemed clearly mythical, but his description of the place was so vivid that before I knew it I was obsessed with reaching the place myself. The silver of the huge cod's back he'd told of kept flashing at the back of my eyeball like a dollar coin, stunning my brain so I would lose whatever train of thought I had been on, at times even striking me dumb as I spoke to friends and associates. As he handed me his map of this imprecisely surveyed stretch of coast, I could not tell whether he regretted telling me of the cove or that my going was his intent all along. Regardless, fishing is my calling, and now the cod were my sirens.
And, lo, did the sirens cast me against the reef. The reader will have to take me on my word when I write that I am of a disposition that searches out my own guilt in any calamity that I'm subject or witness to. If a fault of my own does not exist then I invent one. It dates to the very inception of my being, when my mother died just as I came from her and into the world. Once I had the faculties to understand what had happened to her, I was laden with a murderer's conscience that I never completely shook. I relate this macabre detail only to impress upon the reader how furious I was at myself when the tide began to flow again against the bluff, which should not have happened until I was safely on the next beach, and I still had at least a 15 minute walk ahead. I wanted to own the full blame of the impending doom I now faced, blame that stupid delay I made before setting out, and did for a moment when the sizzling white trim of a wave brushed my shoe. But the fact is that the sea was its own master that day, that tide-machines be damned there still lived mystery in these waters and the low tide was not as low as had been forecast. Like the old shopkeep forced to take a vacation by his physician, it hadn't gone as long or as far away as prescribed, and was making haste back to its province as soon as it could. The tide was less cinching me off from safety than collapsing the walls of the corridor, which is to say everything was deteriorating quickly. I wanted to run but the sand had already been licked by the fresh tide and made it difficult to gain strong footing on. Anyway, I felt then as though my speed were being governed in the balance between the earth and water that I stood between, that if salvation from their crushing communion would be had, then it would be at pace with them and not against.
My sense of doom was heightened further when a large wave cracked against one of the rocks in the shoal. It had been the first such sound that morning, and it shook me as if it were teaching me for the first time the nature of violence in this world. Then it cracked again. The water made another advance and reached the middle of my shins, snatching fist-fulls of sand from beneath my feet and forcing me to grab on to the cliff for balance. I was 10 minutes from the beach ahead, which glowed nearly white now that the day had come into itself. My hand smarted from mere contact with the seawall that was covered in sharp barnacles. My feet ached from the frigid water. I knew I would be completely submerged before I was finished, be that finished with the passage or life or both. Despite myself I watched each wave break to see how far up the shore it advanced. Just as the tide would begin to seem impotent against me it would make another fearsome run to the bluff. Soon I was being knocked to my knees by every fifth wave or so, my hands left bloody by my futile attempts to cling to the rock, and then, finally, I was swept away by the rip-tide.
I knew my only chance at survival in the water lay in my ability to keep my head pointed toward the beach ahead, that in that way I would keep as many of my wits about me as possible. So when I knew I would be swept out into the shoal I lay I my belly and kept as sharp an eye as I could on the beach ahead. As I was pulled into the water I narrowly missed a large piece of rock that would have surely been my doom had I hit it and then was deposited 10 feet from the bluff I had just stood along. I made another five steps of advance before the next wave presented itself. I would have to get under it lest it throw me hard against the rock, so I abandoned my rucksack and dove at it's ice roots just as it crested. The maneuver worked as well as it could have, I was not cast against any rocks, but in exchange I was now entirely in the possession of the sea, my only hope to swim through that terrible reef that had become ravishing with the returning tide. It was difficult to breathe, it felt and smelled as if my sinuses and lungs had been injected with brine, but I managed 10 strong overhand stokes before another swell approached. Again I attempted evasion by diving into it, but my timing was wrong and the water was too strong. I rolled twice over before feeling my shoulder drive into the rock wall. The joint was dislocated and the water completely withdrew and left me momentarily on land. The pain stuck me paralyzed. So there I lay, lame and naked, when the next wave came in and claimed me again for the sea. Being back in the water spurred me again into action, making effort with my legs and one good arm to travel as far as I could. For a moment I hoped that the freezing water was having an anesthetizing effect on my shoulder. I advanced with three or four good strokes. I was near the beach now, and if I could swim another 20 the next wave would push me not against the rock but up onto a forgiving shore. I took another stroke and reminded myself to breath, to keep the predestined pace. The ocean seemed to be paused now, filling me with a distant hope. But that hope proved unfounded when the next wave picked up the disabled arm and twisted as if testing the properties of a human appendage tethered to the body only by skin and muscle. Even before my body was delivered unto whatever grim destination the wave would have me I vomited in pain, and then fainted.
When I regained consciousness, I was on the beach, supine in dry sand, burning under a noon sun. I was naked but for some tattered remnant of canvas pants and my leather boots. Beside me was a single piece of tubular seaweed that must have come there attached to me. I blinked and found the edges of my eyes to be crusted by sand. I licked my lips and found them to be parched. I tried to rise but my shoulder barked and I cried out in pain.
“Shush,” I heard a warm voice say.
I strained to see who said it, but I couldn't contort to look around me without seizing in pain.
“Shushhhhh.” The voice spoke again.
And I no longer needed to look to see who spoke, for I'd always known the voice. I was consumed then by the calm that comes with shelter and warmth, and fell back to sleep to the hush of the ocean's thin rattle.