The Kingdom of Shells

First published in Frogpond 28:3, Fall 2005, pages 48 to 51.

 

 

“It is full of rips and tears, its bright color drains outward
into the kingdom of shells”

                              —Mary Oliver, “Lion’s Mane”

 

She needed to go to the bathroom, and there wasn’t a public toilet around for thirty miles. We hardly needed that as a reason to stop, for the stretches of undisturbed beaches, rocky outcroppings, and glistening tide pools were reason enough. This was the Lost Coast, the remotest region of the state’s northern shore, at Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point of California. Coming down the long hill between sheep farms, past a barn in need of paint at the end of a creek drainage, we drove under patchy clouds that had streaked our windshield as we left Ferndale earlier in the day. Pointing the car down the most obscure road, we ended up here, in need of a bathroom.

      My wife hopscotched down the bluff to the edge of the beach, dropped her pants, and squatted among some dry grasses. “Tell me if someone comes,” she urged, looking up. I promised that I would.

      Her deed done, I went down the hill, too. “Let’s walk,” I said, taking her hand.

      Beyond the reach of the highest tides, wind-decayed footprints hid among the weeds, but ten yards west the slate-clean sand was pocked only by the earlier rain and little air holes from whatever creatures hid underneath.

 

                                                      Memorial Day clouds—

                                                      to the tracks of the sandpiper

                                                      we add our own

 

      Not far along the beach we saw a carcass—a rotting stingray, five or six feet long, and maybe five feet wide if its wings had been uncurled. Upside down, its mouth buck-toothed to the elements, sand sculpted around its shoulders and wing-fins, its hide leathered in the sun of lengthening days.

      “Don’t touch it!” my wife blurted. So I touched it. With my shoe.

 

                                                      tumbling waves—

                                                            the wind shifts sand grains

                                                      at the stingray’s teeth

 

      It was heavier than I expected, or maybe just so worked into the sand that dislodging it was more of a task than budging its weight. Soon, I imagined, it would sink into the sand and disappear.

      We went on walking south, into the salt spray. I had chosen this direction when we started so the walk back would be nicer, the wind at our backs. We held hands, swinging them sometimes, at times letting go to inspect some trapped tidewater, flotsam, a polished stone.

 

                                                      pelicans gliding—

                                                      again a perfect shell

                                                      lifts out broken

 

       “Let’s go to the big rock,” I said, half a mile south. There, each circling the boulder from a different side, we passed on the far side like satellites, then met again to the north in a slow-motion hug.

      Soon we returned to the stingray, its long tail barbed near the end, threatening like a rattler. I pushed at it again with the toe of my shoe and, on releasing it, the tail swung back firmly across the sand, leaving an arc as if it were a windblown reed. On a more trafficked beach this old stingray would have decayed long before. Here . . . how long it had been here, I could not guess.

      We continued north. The wind blew my wife’s dark hair from behind her ears and around her cheeks, our feet sinking, not sinking, as we walked around this rock and that weathered stump. Sand fleas scattered as we stepped over sinewy kelp-strands or stepped on the kelp bladders to pop them. Against wet sand they popped easily, but against dry sand they often sank.

      We stopped at a dripping little log at the edge of the waves. “See Japan?” I asked, as we looked to the ocean’s horizon. “No, silly, that’s Hawaii.” Just then we darted away from the water, retreating from an overzealous wave. Then it retreated from us, taking with it the little log.

 

                                                      bubbling foam—

                                                      far out to sea

                                                      a streak of spring sun

 

      My wife dropped my hand to angle back towards the car. I went on, along the wave edge, to inspect a dark mass—another stingray.

      This one was larger, fresher, closer to the water, its mouth also turned to the sky. I wondered about this, that both stingrays were on their backs—their way of death, perhaps, to contravene their way of living. I heaved against it with my shoe, against the side of its wing, heavy yet still gracefully curved. I crouched down beside it, as if a doctor at its bedside. It was too fresh to smell, too recently alive to have flies. I looked at the crescent moon of its mouth, at its pebbly yellow teeth, the tatters and scrapes along its wings, the awkward twist in its tail.

      “Don’t touch it,” I imagined my wife saying. Strange, and not strange, I thought, and reached out, taking the tail’s midsection between my thumb and forefinger, pulling it sideways till it straightened.

 

                                                      grains of sand

                                                      stuck to my finger—

                                                      tears in the stingray’s eyes

 

      In a moment I was back at the bluff, my wife up by the car, waiting for me and the keys. It was my turn to pee. I unzipped my pants and peed into the dry weeds. My urine made a quick pool, then sank into the sand, yellow into yellow, on its way to the kingdom of shells. Overhead, the clouds had shifted their quilt, teasing with scraps of blue. In the entire hour, no other cars had stopped here. Not one had passed us on this long stretch of the Lost Coast.

      “Tell me if someone comes,” she had said. “Tell me if someone comes.”