Mud sucked at Nadine’s boots as she stomped across the beach and she once again wished the damn boots were a little bit smaller. This particular size and style had been on clearance and she’d told Seth it would be fine.
‘You should have boots that fit you perfectly,’ he’d said.
‘I’ll just wear two pairs of socks,’ she replied. ‘I like wearing two pairs,’ she added when he frowned.
Now here at the beach, Seth was once again right and the boots did prove to be less than ideal as she huffed in the air that was crisp in the way only April Washington air could be, coming off the Puget Sound, held in by mist, and so thick with ocean that it tasted like clams.
And seaweed, and oysters, and the oily bottom of a fishing boat drifting down current from the refineries.
The stupid spring mud suctioned her too-big boot and yanked it free. Her one-socked foot dug into the mud and she swore. She had forgotten to wear her second pair of socks. It was fifty degrees out, who wore two pairs of socks?
She jammed her foot back inside the boot, mud and all. The squish was audible and the primeval mixture oozed between her toes. Her overdue filling ached as she clenched her teeth.
‘You okay?’ Seth’s voice carried across the ocean air right along with the clam-taste and the seaweed stench.
She nodded and waved back. They’d had a fight in the car. She’d said something she shouldn’t have, and he’d said he’d rather dig for clams than pick oysters. It wasn’t exactly a lie. He always did prefer to dig for clams, but they usually did everything as a pair, to split the work, to be more efficient, and to spend the time together. They’d studied the tide charts, the health department warnings, and the park hours and outlined a map for the month. A plan to get the most food they could with their own hands. Their diet would be well-rounded only because the year was. Isn’t that how it worked naturally? They would focus on fruits and vegetables come fall, but for now it was all about omega-3s. Oysters and clams. Oysters and clams. Hardly something most people would complain about, and neither would she if they hadn’t quit their jobs and committed to this fantasy—living by their own hand, and off the land.
If they were lucky they’d find a cockle or two. Despite living closer to the surface, cockles were a rare find. Their speckled shells so much more interesting than the average clam, and sturdier against the bite of the shovel than a person might guess. She never accidentally smashed a cockle like she had so many clams. Plus, cockles were fun to call by name. Cockles. Cockles.
That’s what Seth called them.
‘Oh,’ she’d said. ‘They’re pretty.’
‘They’re my favorite,’ he’d concurred.
He was better at digging. Faster, stronger, with a better mind for where the clam might go.
‘No, the other way,’ he’d say. ‘Didn’t you see the spout?’
Clamming hurt her back, hunching over the shovel, digging the endless pit, chasing the little spurt of water that disappeared into the earth. It was all so much work.
‘How can they move so fast?’ she asked. ‘Do they actually move? How is it even possible?’
‘Bivalves,’ he said, and then something after that.
Whatever. They tasted good after ten minutes in the pressure cooker with cheap white wine, that brand with the foot on the label, and the grass-fed butter they splurged on, that’s all she knew.
The oysters, though. The oysters tasted good right here on the beach. Sometimes they’d crack a couple open and slurp them down on the spot—that was a fresh oyster. Nobody else in the world could know such a fresh oyster. It tasted of everything it was. Sand, sea, and air. When they first started shell-fishing, they felt guilty for sneaking a snack, but then they’d seen all the old people doing it, too. One old man even winked at her one day and she knew their secret was safe.
But today she and Seth had fought in the car and she trudged to the oyster bed alone. They only had so much time before the tide came back in again. Before the sandy, muddy, gritty beach that smelled like the inside of a fish tank became an actual fish tank once more—and somehow the water always came back in so much faster than it went out.
She set her bucket on the sand and surveyed the oyster bed. Thousands of oysters, no exaggeration, in far too small of a space, and at least a dozen, maybe two, geriatrics combing the place for the best of them. It wasn’t a matter of finding oysters here; it was a matter of finding the best ones and the old folks had it down. The oysters would never grow here naturally like this. The government came and planted them all, forbid anyone from touching them for most of the year, and then one day opened the gates and said, ‘Oh, hey, look at that. There’s oysters!’ And at those open gates, the throngs of retirees waited with their shovels, and waders, and buckets, and smiles. And time. So much time they all had, with nothing else to do but poke around on the beach for mostly-free food if you didn’t count the fishing license and the gas it took to drive here—and the boots.
They probably all had pensions, and retirement, and 401Ks. They weren’t hungry. They didn’t need nearly-free food on a daily basis.
She and Seth were not so different from the old people in some ways. Out of work, lounging in the afternoon sun. Only the old people had earned it, and she and Seth were just playing at it, like everything else. Trying to steal retirement early, trying to play outside the game.
Her butt went cold. The seawater lapped at the fabric of her pants and at the ankles of her boots. She glanced out at the water and could see the currents picking up speed, little eddies forming here and there.
She hooked her three-forked garden tool on an oyster and wiggled it loose from its home. She set it on top of the pile she hugged against her left side. Technically, there were only so many oysters one person could gather. Technically, she was supposed to shuck her own. But every couple here was dividing it up just like her—one picking, one shucking, a two-person take. But Seth wasn’t here beside her like the husbands of all the old wives were. He was back there with the clams, and his shovel, and his bucket, wishing he had someone to grab each creature as he exposed it before it dove deep down into the earth again. That’s how it usually worked and it worked much better that way. He dug the hole and she snatched out the clams and measured them. She picked the oysters and he shucked them. She was no good at shucking—Seth was sure she would stab herself in the palm—and her clam holes were shallow, settling for not much more than perfect cockle depth. As soon as the water gurgled into the hole she moved on.
Everything seemed like such a good idea at first. Jobs, cities, relationships. Once she had that job she’d make more money. Once she lived in that town she’d make more friends. Once she married that guy everything would be all right.
Except it never worked that way. The mud got harder to shovel and the water came gurgling in.
She looked back at Seth, digging a hole to China, one no doubt lined with clams. He was so much better at all of this than she.
‘You deserve better,’ he’d said as they stood in the store aisle and her feet wiggled around inside her boots.
‘Do I?’ she’d asked.
‘Trust me,’ he’d replied.
Maybe it was him that deserved something better—someone better. Someone with a generally more positive attitude to match his own. Someone with more ability and intelligence. Someone with the money to back his dreams. Because he did have dreams, and not just for himself, but for them—for her. It wasn’t about the food, though Lord knew they spent enough time determining the methods and means to gather it; it was about forging a meaning-filled life. It was about spending those meaning-filled moments together. Creating a system that could stand on its own, where positive energy flowed in, and out, and between them. That wasn’t something to dismiss as fantasy. That was a dream few dared to voice, much less pursue—and that is what he wanted for her. How much did it really matter if they ever got there or not?
She felt stupid for arguing in the car, for every time she’d whined about the sting of the nettles they foraged, for every time she yelped when she stuck herself with a fish hook, for not letting him spend the extra ten dollars on the right pair of boots.
She shuffled back to him with her bucket banging into the side of her calf and the mud squishing through the fabric of her sock. She tilted the bucket so he could see the oysters she’d collected.
‘Will you help me shuck them?’ she asked.
‘Of course,’ he said and smiled. ‘Check it out.’ His head jerked toward a pile of clams next to his Asiatic tunnel. ‘Sort through and pick the best, will you?’
She knelt and ran her thumb across a cockle on the top of the pile. Maybe they would make it. Maybe the dream could be real and not just an adventure to enjoy, an endless road trip. Maybe there was a shimmering oasis awaiting them—their own private island.
‘What I said in the car…’ She stood and waited for his eyes to raise up and meet hers. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘We’ll get there,’ he replied. ‘I promise.’
She leaned into him and felt his arms wrap around her like seaweed, like the man she loved today and always would.
His hug relaxed. He leaned back and glanced at the rising water.
‘We should get as many as we can today, before the weather gets hot and it’s not safe any more.’
The current in the water had grown stronger, the eddies turning in ripples, the beach already much smaller than it had been moments before. It wouldn’t be long before the weather stayed too hot and the air smelled of bacteria and algae—and the oily bottom of a boat down current from the oil refineries. Before the edges of the hole she had dug began to crumble and the water rushed back in.
© Becca Borawski Jenkins
[This piece was selected by Valerie Waterhouse]