Plum Island

by Andrew Coburn

Originally published in Contrary Magazine

I don’t know his name. He never said it. Nor did I mention mine.
I’ve seen him here before, this hour of the day, the sun sinking, ebb tide, and on this same spot on Plum Island, where he stands apart from the other fishermen, who look like fishermen. He doesn’t. 

They have the proper poles, the right gear, the special caps and hats, while he is dressed in gray, the pants from an old business suit.  His rod and reel seem too flimsy for the surf.

They stand with cool detachment and sealed lips. From time to time he tosses his weight from one leg to another. They stand still.  Sand fleas bite him but not them.  They rear back to cast, and the snap and whistle of their lines are like guns fired at human targets. They show no emotion. He does.

He reacts sharply to things. The sudden slap of a wave, like a laugh. The kicking up of the wind so that the sand stumbles. The sudden appearance of birds in the sky, like scratches on glass. The formation of a tidal pool, a glittering ghetto of broken shells, washed-up weed, fish bones, and a single fish head with its eye a gem in all that junk.

They socket their poles in the sand and lounge next to them like warriors resting their weapons, their faces stark, plain, the same. His is deluged with detail, ornate in its architecture, with its high forehead, spider web wrinkles, prominent nose, thoughtful eyes, and split chin. They are young compared to him. He may be eighty, or more.

They come to fish, semiprofessionally, with no enthusiasm, as if they knew in advance they would catch old fish, sluggish stripers. He comes for other reasons, which I figure out for myself. He comes to brood over the beauty of the place, to study the ancient history of the scroll-like sea, to stand in the pea-green dusk and ponder waves that wear out before reaching shore.

I speak to him. I figure he’s from Newburyport or Rowley, perhaps Salem or Ipswich.  None of these places. He’s from Boston, he says. Some years ago he used to come here to Plum Island with friends whose names now escape him, fishermen who spoke little, grunted much. “Not unlike these fellas around us,” he whispers. 

And years before that, he says, he came here with a woman whose child collected sand dollars and wanted to spend them at the store. His voice softening, he says he wanted to marry the woman and would have if things had been different.  How different?  He doesn’t say.  Now he doesn’t know where she is, probably in the ground.

He and I have difficulty threading our hooks through sandworms, which aren’t worms at all but insects with teeth like those of mice. You have to grab them behind the head so you won’t be bitten.  He is not careful, and he makes a thin pointed sound, almost like a toy whistle, as he tries to shake off the pain.

I tell him that I’ve seen him before.

He laughs. “Maybe you only think you have. Old geezers look alike.”

“No, it was on this beach, right here. Maybe a month ago.”

“Possibly,” he concedes.

His thoughts return to the woman he didn’t marry, to the way she stood near the surf and rearranged her mass of hair so that he could better see her face, which was small and fine-boned, like her hands. He recalls how she dropped her hands from her hair and drew her child close because of a sudden figure on the beach, a man with a shotgun held downward, laid against his leg.

“Tell me more.”

“Nothing to tell. He was just there, an omen, a presence you couldn‘t ignore. At least she couldn’t.”

Darkness arrives quickly. We can no longer see where we have cast our lines.  Nearby a fish is making its final argument with a hook baited by one of the other fishermen. The old man wonders aloud about the guilt of a fish that gives itself up so easily.

“Listen,” he says and tells me about the woman’s child, a boy of four, who buried a dead bird and exhumed it a day later, upset because it hadn’t risen. Then he talks about the woman’s face, which eventually gave out a silent message.  “Ask me anything. I have no answers.”

He speaks with such quiet force and controlled intensity that I can see the woman, her bones truly fine, just as he said, and I can hear her voice, which is dry and resigned, unvarnished. Then she grows aware of my eyes and vanishes into the past, where moments, hers and mine, no longer connect.

He and I catch nothing. I expected to, or at least hoped to.  He asks where I live. I tell him. Andover. He’s quite familiar with it. He went to the academy. He asks whether I’m married. I am. He asks whether I have children. I do.  Daughters.

“Then you’ve caught something,” he says and smiles. “You won’t go home empty.”

His face changes. In a snatch of moonlight it now reminds me of a business seal, drawn particularly tight at the mouth, above which, I notice for the first time, is a mustache of sorts, a rigid row of short silver hairs, mandatory for men of a certain age and station. 

He reels in his line. No bait left on the hook, which is how he wants it.  He separates the pole into two pieces. The way he does it seems significant.  His box of sandworms is mine if I want it. He must return to Boston. Here at Plum Island, where things become lost forever in the sand or washed away with the tide, the world is ageless, timeless, all of a piece, fish and fisherman one, the fishermen interchangeable, ghosts of other generations. He and I are one, our age difference blurred.

The others have gone, as if they had never been present, and now he is leaving, briskly for a man of eighty or more. Something he says stays in the dark.

“Carry on, son.”

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