By the Sea
Originally published Sept 30, 2014
I grew up in a busy fishing town at the edge of the sea. What I remember most is the smell of the place. I can recall it even now – briny, fishy, sweaty, acrid. The scent of wood fires and charcoal burning; the oil and petrol from the boats; salt water and rotting fish. Sometimes, after school, I would go to a small cove, away from the boats, just to have the sea to myself. I would dig my little toes into the wet sand, and just breathe it all in.
The smell of the shore is, in fact, that of decay and death. It’s seaweed rotting on the sand; small sea creatures – shellfish and crabs – wounded or dead on or under the rocks. Even the sea birds dined on death, feasting on carrion. But these aromas were familiar to me. It was the smell of my home.
Once, when I was quite young, we traveled to visit some of my mother’s family up in the highlands. Even at that young age, I marveled at how different the air tasted.
Up there, was the sweet smell of life. Of flowers and things green. Of birds and animals living in the forest. It was the organic smell of humus which is technically not alive, but from which life springs so abundantly, it’s hard to think of it as anything other than a living thing. The scent of the flowers — pink and orange and violet — was intoxicating! They grew everywhere, springing up from the ground; hanging from the trees; climbing on vines up the walls of the houses.
It was a magical place, and I could not decide which I preferred more – the shore or the hills. I wondered where I would live when I was grown.
Like many of the other men, my father was a fisherman. One of the aromas I most associated with the shore, and which I loved the most, was his scent when he held me. When the smell of his manly body odor, fish, motor oil, and cigarettes tickled my nostrils, it meant I was safe.
As most young girls, I was in love with my father. He was a handsome man, brown from the sun, with thick, black hair and straight white teeth. His strong arms could lift me up high and carry me all the way home.
He went out to sea almost every day on his small wooden boat, painted white and blue. It had a motor in the back which was often in need of repair. He spent many hours working on it.
Although fishing was the main industry in our area, there were few who had the money for a brand new motor. They all bought the best used equipment they could afford. That meant being a successful fisherman was not just knowing where to find or how to catch fish. It meant one also be good at repair; to have an understanding of how a motor worked, how to fix it with whatever parts were available or that could be cobbled together, with old tools which were always on the verge of giving out. When a motor stopped, there was no time to waste, especially not out at sea.
I knew it was not good when my father couldn’t be out on the water; when he was stuck in port trying to make that old piece of machinery sputter to life. It meant a loss of income. This situation was inevitable for every boat owner. It was time lost which none could afford, yet, it was accepted that this was just how it was. The men used to say, “Just when you get ahead, you fall ten steps back.” Thinking philosophically instead of feeling sorry for themselves was another necessary requirement for being a fisherman.
Still, as a child, I loved the days my father was stuck in the harbor. I was happy knowing he was safe, close to home where I could keep my eye on him or run to see him. It scared me to imagine him out there, with all the many unknown dangers. It was never far from my mind that the sea might take him and I would never see him again.
My mother was as beautiful as my father was handsome. She had a stall in the market where she sold small sweets and savories, all of which she made herself; some at home and some fresh on the spot. She was famous in town for her cooking.
She’d been in that stall since she was 16. Since before I was born. Since before she met my father. It had belonged to her mother, and when she died, it fell to my mother to cook and sell, to help support her family.
That’s how she met my father. He always joked that he first fell in love with her sweets, and then with her sweetness.
My mother’s sweets were so delicate, they would dissolve on the tongue. Some of her small pastries were so spicy, they could make a grown man cry. Her savories had such complex flavors, you could still taste them, mingling on your tongue even after you’d swallowed.
Most people didn’t take the time to really savor them, which was a pity. To them, they were just a quick bite to eat when they didn’t have time to stop and sit and have a proper meal. The shoppers, the other vendors, the workmen and women passing by, they all had a need of a her snacks, but only a few took the time to fully appreciate what an innovative cook she was. Everything she made — even for strangers, even for those who never gave her refined cooking a second thought — was made with love. But if people’s palates were not sophisticated enough to recognize her culinary genius, they certainly were able to taste the care and joy that went into each piece.
Her stall was in an excellent and much-coveted location, at the outer corner of the market, which gave her maximum exposure to passersby. Her food stall was the most popular and had been so since shortly after she began there.
If the market was open, Mother was there. Usually six days a week, even through her pregnancy with me and with my younger sister.
My father and I both agreed that my mother was the prettiest woman in the town. She had big eyes and long lashes and skin the color of the sweet milk tea I loved to drink. She had long, dark hair which she wore in a single braid down her back. I, myself, wore two braids, which she plaited for me every morning and carefully combed them out every night before I went to bed. Then she would brush my hair, gently, as she sang to me or told me stories, relaxing me for bed.
Some days, after my father came in from the sea and had unloaded his fish and had finished cleaning the boat, and tuning the motor, my mother would take me and my sister to meet him in the harbor. Mother would bring whatever snacks she had left over from the day, and together we would sit on the boat and talk about our day, as we watched the sun set over the ocean. We were happy and we loved each other.
I was lucky. Between my mother and my father, there was enough money to send me to school, and in a new dress every year.
Each December, at the end of the month, we celebrated a family tradition, the same as my mother had done as a child. There was an exchange of gifts. The year I turned eight, my special gift was a new pair of “big girl” shoes. They were shiny and black with a pink ribbon. I felt like a real lady in them. I couldn’t wait to show them off to my friends at school! As was always the case with new shoes and new clothes, they were purchased a bit too large to give me time to grow into them. I pushed paper into the toes so they wouldn’t fall off.
The next morning, on my way to school, I scanned the harbor. Most of the boats were already out to sea. Father’s was not there, which meant his motor was working that morning. I would worry about him until I saw him again in the evening.
And then something strange happened.
The sea peeled back from the shore, exposing more beach than I’d ever seen before. It sloped steeply down.
Some people started to panic and run away from the water, but most either weren’t paying attention or, like myself, went closer to see what was going on, not understanding what it meant.
I stood there, fascinated. And then, suddenly, there was a wall of water so high and frightening it took my breath away even before it crashed over me. Instantly, I and everything else was under it. My new shoes were sucked off my feet. In those last seconds, before I drowned all I could think about was my lost shoes.
We were all lost except my father, but when he came back to shore and saw the devastation, he no longer had the heart for living. He rejoined us soon.
By human standards, it was a great tragedy. So much loss of life. But it was a necessary correction which the universe must make from time to time. I do not understand the reasons.
So many souls, all leaving the living world at one time, creating so much energy. I was just a small part of it; a tiny speck in a cloud of dust, floating upwards on a ribbon of sunlight.
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