North Coast

A novel by Charles Le Guin

Illustrated by Sally Lackaff

Beach Fire: illustration by Sally Lackaff

From Chapter IV

The picnic area was located near the center of the beach, at the foot of the stairs that led down from Bay Street. We juniors moved south of the common area to establish our class base. Some of our class spread blankets on which they immediately sat to resume the bull session that had continued off and on for ten months up the hill at school. Denise, with whom I'd walked down from Upper Bench, sat happily among them; she did like to talk and never seemed to mind talking about the same thing over and over. I, and a few others, wandered around in search of driftwood for the class fire, so that we would have a sufficient supply to keep us cozy when darkness fell. It didn't take long to gather enough wood for the evening: by the end of May, North Coast twilight lasts a long time and the picnic always ends at 11:00 PM.

I'm not by nature a great talker, and the thought of four or five hours of rather stale small talk made it essential for me to escape from the group gathered around Denise. When enough wood was gathered, I headed off towards South Arm Creek. This, and the opposite end of the shore, where North Arm River meets the sea, form dramatic brackets enclosing our beach. As the ends of the beach are approached, the sand plays out into rocks; round pebbles become large boulders become great outcroppings, out of which the two streams flow to meet the tide with a good deal of exciting turbulence. Here too are endlessly fascinating tidal pools with all the vital activity of seashore life. The ends are my favorite parts of our beach, though few people ever bother to walk that far from the central sandy stretch which they reach at the foot of the stairs leading down from Bay Street.

Since I generally have the extremities of the beach to myself, I have naturally come to consider them as my own. But I was not to be alone on this Picnic Day. I was hardly beyond hearing the chattering knot of juniors before I was aware of another sound mixing with the sloshing noise of waves breaking on the sand, the sucking sound of another pair of footsteps. I didn't turn to look; all I could think of was, don't let it be Denise. Denise can never not talk.

I recognized that it was Steve as he came abreast. I felt relief more than pleasure. He didn't even greet me, and he didn't talk as we walked on. He just fell into step and side by side we made our way south to the tidal pools. There we spent an equally silent hour or so, hopping from rock to rock, no longer in step, each independently in his own sphere, watching, absorbing the beauty and the drama of tidal pool life, drinking in the cool salty air, listening to the great crash of the surf and the lonely cry of the gulls, mutually absorbing the luxury of solitude.

In time, we converged onto a particularly elegant pool, an almost perfect oval of deep, perfectly clear, placid water. At the bottom was clean sand and innumerable small shells and rocks; the dark rock sides of the pool were coated with the thick fur of sea anemones, all colors and shades of coral, green, white, and lavender. I knew this pool well and always went to it last, a sort of ritual before I headed back up the beach. Steve was obviously as well acquainted with this part of the beach as I, but I had no idea if he shared my special feelings about the pool we were staring into. I could see his face as it was reflected back from the mirror-like water; he appeared to be hypnotized. We squatted, side by side, gazing, watching the anemones open and shut, shut and open, sending out their delicate filigree tentacles in a rhythmic dance, drawing them in, sending them out again.

Finally — after how long? — it was Steve who spoke: "You know why they open and shut, open and shut?"

I didn't respond. Perhaps I was stunned by having the silence broken; perhaps it was the rarity of having Steve initiate a conversation; perhaps he didn't expect me to reply.

"They open to let the spirits of fishermen who have drowned have some freedom. When a fisherman drowns, his spirit is imprisoned in an anemone. But there isn't any real freedom for him when the anemone opens. His spirit is captured again as soon as it shuts. There's no escape." Then Steve stirred the water in the pool, poking it with a stick. The anemones closed quickly. "When you stir up the water like this, they think you are trying to free the captured spirits, so they all shut rapidly and the fishermen's spirits are imprisoned again." With that he stood and said, "Come on, we'd better go back. They'll be wondering what's happened to us. Anyway, it's about time for food and , I don't know about you, but I want my share."

We made our way side by side, silently, back to the bonfire and wieners and marshmallows and pop and cocoa available nearer the center of the beach. It was all very good and, though I felt spiritually satisfied by the time at the tidal pool, I was physically hungry. Everybody was happy and jolly. I simply don't remember whether I took any part in the talk; my classmates, excepting Denise, even if they noticed that I hadn't, would have put it down to my "being on another planet." I remember the crowd, the noise, and the food, but my thoughts were elsewhere.

Which didn't keep me from eating; very little does: ever since becoming a lanky teenager, as far as eating is concerned I have been, according to my mother, "a stocking with a hole in it toe". After we all stuffed ourselves and before we broke up around our class fires, there were some not very successful attempts at inter-class competition at the volley ball nets that had been set up. The tradition was that sophomores played freshmen and juniors challenged the seniors. It certainly wasn't regulation volleyball — the teams were too large and were co-educational. It was free-for-all fun and kept us from collapsing into the stupor of gluttony and gossip. Solitary physical activities such as swimming and hiking I enjoy but I find most team sports objectionable and have never made any school team. The one exception to my aversion to group sports is volleyball, which I play with energy and pleasure. During our junior-senior game I managed a couple of very telling net plays, which contributed to our class success. I don't know who was the more surprised, the seniors or my classmates, who, I guess, decided that I had returned from my private planet at least for our game.

When it got so dark that the game, with juniors well ahead, became irredeemably chaotic, we had to call it off. During the brief time left before curfew, some of us sat around the fires while others paired off, to enjoy the privacy of the darkening beach. I felt no urge to join the couples who wandered hand in hand, up and down the beach and it never dawned on me to ask Denise, the only person with whom I might possibly have taken a such walk. Either she never expected it of me or was content with the fact that we would be walking home together. She seemed perfectly happy to sit around fire talking with those of us who remained huddled there. There was endless talk about all manner of things around those fires, and there were no silences that had to be filled. It was always easy for me to withdraw quietly into myself; so my classmates thought nothing of my silence. As time to leave for our homes approached, even talkative the ones grew quiet. It seemed enough for us to sit in the light and warmth of the fire, savoring the knowledge that school was all but over, that we had made it through another year.

As juniors, our pleasure in Picnic Day was not dampened, as it was for seniors, by the fact that it was our last. Though I would have preferred to go home, everybody stayed around the fire to the end. Eleven o'clock came soon enough; we doused the fire with sand and water and headed for our homes. As we straggled up the stairs and across Bay Street and along Upper Street, up the hill towards Lower or Upper Benches, Steve fell into step with Denise and me and we three walked along together, not talking much — even Denise didn't seem to feel the need. As we reached Lower Bench Road, where Steve would have to turn southward towards his house, on impulse I decided to suggest that he and Denise come with me and have some cocoa at my Hawk's Nest. Denise surprised me by claiming that it was her bedtime, and begged off; Steve agreed, "Sure, that'd be nice. But what's this Hawk's Nest of yours?" Denise knew, had known forever.


Mary's Cabin: Illustratioin by Sally Lackaff

From Chapter X

Mary Whitefish is a North Coast person, of North Coast people who were here long before my people ever knew there was such a place. But, as I discovered when we met, she and I shared similar feelings about our common place.

Early in November, as Steve and I were leaving school one day, he told me that he had gone to see Mary and that she had been at home: This was now the home time of year, she had told him. He had asked if he could bring with him a friend (I felt pleased to be so acknowledged), who had an interest in the Bridger Bay area, its history, its people and their legends. She gave her assent, and it was arranged that we should go to see her the following Saturday afternoon, after Steve had finished his work at the motel.

The day dawned typically, drizzling and foggy, very wet; by noon the drizzle had let up a bit, but not the fog — it was not always easy to tell the difference. Early afternoon, Steve appeared at the house and we set off for Mary's.

Immediately south of Bridger Bay, just across South Arm Creek, is a promontory jutting perhaps some four hundred feet westward into the sea, a bulwark protecting our town to the south. (There is a similar conformation, across North Arm River, to the north of town). The south promontory is known as Cape Disappearance. How it got that name I'm not sure, but it was well named, for it truly does disappear into fog and rain most of the time between mid-October and mid-February, and often throughout much of the spring as well.

As Steve and I walked down the road towards where Cape Disappearance should be, he observed, "You know the Cape is the perfect place for gliding."

"In which case, it's just as well you haven't got your equipment with you. You can't even prove it's there today."

"True enough, but by the time it comes back to stay awhile, I'll have my wings and I'm going to fly off the top."

"That I want to see."

"Be there and you will."

We walked across the non-evident promontory on the old road that the cut-off had replaced, and turned onto a trail that wandered down to the cove on the south side of the Cape, where Mary lived. The trail was cut through the undergrowth of thick salal and huckleberry and large sword fern, and in the fog it was like making a very damp descent into a tangled void. At the bottom we found what Steve referred to as "Mary-land." It was a small, deep cove, perhaps five hundred feet wide at its ocean edge, with a steeply banked beach, a narrow sand strip from which ascended a broad, stretch of rock, ranging in size from gravel to boulder. A small, clear, rapidly flowing stream rushed down and emptied into the sea, dividing the cove into two nearly equal halves. It was embraced, all around on the landward side, by huge trees, fir and hemlock, all but lost in the fog.

Towards the rear of the cove, set back from the shore and high seas as far as possible, was Mary's cabin. It was surrounded by the trees — fir and broad leaf maple — that grew like a cascade down the steep Cape against which the cabin was placed; indeed, it seemed like a fantastic tree itself, spotted with moss and lichen, watered by the stream that flowed close by. The cabin looked as if it had accreted there, taking shape and size as materials had accumulated and arranged themselves. It was constructed principally of drift wood and whatever had been gleaned from sawmills in the area and looked entirely natural, native to its location.

We knocked on the door and a deep, quiet voice invited us in from the damp of the late afternoon fog. As my eyes became accustomed to the hazy light I saw that the interior confirmed the natural impression of the exterior. The cabin was essentially one large room, with various lean-to additions that served specific purposes: In one addition, separated from the main room by a curtain, was a sleeping platform. Other extrusions were closets, pantries, and other storage places. One end, nearest the stream, was given over to the stone hearth, which provided heat and also served for cooking. It was massive and the smoke escaped through an arrangement that looked makeshift but was clearly functional: Half an oil drum faced outward over the fire and a stove pipe led from the drum head out through the roof. The room was sparsely furnished — a long wooden table with benches; a couple of shelves with basins, pots, a water bucket, and various other utensils; two well-used, low-slung, and rump-sprung arm chairs; and a couple of three-legged stools. There was a kerosene lamp on the table, and a couple more in wall sockets. There were rugs on the floor, and on some of the walls; there were blankets on the chairs and on a shelf, easily at hand when needed. The cabin had an aura of cleanliness, derived partly from the silvery sheen of the driftwood from which it was principally made, and busy-ness, revealed in the idiosyncratic ordering of its contents. Permeating it was a heady aroma, a combination of the sea-salty smell of the wood, the wood smoke, the fog, and various herbs and condiments that hung from the rafters and around the wall. I had never been in a home like this before; I never expect to see its like again.










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Updated Thursday, 08-Jul-2010 19:03:00 PDT