Friday, September 11, 2015
The argument had lasted 100 miles of wet desert highway.
"Where are we going?" Jazmyn asked. "I want to know where we are going."
Brice suggested that she get out of the car. He told her that if she didn’t like riding, she could walk. Rain cut unaccustomed furrows across the slopes of the barren mud and sand hills. The flat and empty country was full of mist that sometimes threatened to overwhelm the naked two-lane highway on which they were driving.
"Where would I go?" Jazmyn asked, beating her fist against the dashboard.
"I don’t know," Brice said.
Brice told her that they had to save themselves, that his job was strangling him, and that the rent was too high for their income, exorbitant for a three-room place where the air-conditioner stank like a swamp and roaches scurried for the floorboards when the lights were turned on and where the drains were always clogged and the water tasted like the chemicals in a swimming pool.
"That was no fit place to live," Brice said.
"But to leave in the middle of the night and with just our clothing and a suitcase ?" Jazmyn said. She began to cry again.
"No choice," Brice said. "It’ll be better soon. I promise you that."
Jazmyn said that he was selfish and irresponsible and that he didn’t love her anymore and that she would have to return to her mother’s place in Sacramento. The rain flopped listlessly against the windshield and the wipers gestured helplessly smearing the black strip of highway ahead of them and, when a truck passed, all in a rage to reach the mountains, the old car wavered and trembled in the tidal wave of water thrown against them.
Brice told her that they would make the sea before sunset and that he had hitchhiked that stretch of highway between the ocean and coastal range four or five years ago. "We can camp on the beach and watch the sun go down," he said. "I know places out there."
Brice said that his buddy worked for the Department of Natural Resources in one of the seaside towns. "He’ll get me some work, a pay-check, then, we can take stock of things and figure out our next move."
"There won’t be any next move," Jazmyn said and she began to cry so hard that her nose ran and her shoulders were trembling.
Ahead of them, a flash flood jetted across a swale in the highway. The brown torrent was rolling brown stones along its edge.
"Now, what?" Jazmyn asked.
"It’s not that deep," Brice said.
"Stop right here," Jazmyn demanded. "We have to wait for the water to go down."
"No," Brice said. "If we get stranded here, we’re fucked. We’re completely fucked." He cocked an eye to look in the rear view mirror: empty desert and wet ravines and a half-mile of slick blacktop.
"I don’t want to drown."
"We’d be lucky to drown," Brice said. "That would be good fortune for us the way things are going."
He slid the car forward into the swift-moving stream hissing across the road. Jazmyn screamed and punched him hard in the ear. The flash flood caught the underside of the car and, suddenly, lifted it up so that Brice could feel the vehicle floating, a strange weightless sensation in the pit of his stomach. Then, the front-wheel drive caught on the inclined highway ahead of them and clawed the car up out of the water.
"See," Brice said. "We’re home-free. No one can chase us. We came through on the other side."
"I’m sorry I hit you," Jazmyn said. "But I thought you were trying to drown us."
"I was trying to save us," Brice said. "And you busted my ear-drum."
He began to weep, shoving the tears to the corners of his eyes with his knuckles.
In the foothills, they came upon a strange traffic jam. Eight or nine cars were stopped ahead of them, a few trucks also, all pulled onto the shoulder of the highway. People stood in the glistening sage, gesturing at the sky. The sun was shining behind them and the battalions of the rain were fleeing across the plain, retreating like a grey, foggy army, here and there columns of water still falling from the sky as a sad, desultory bombardment. Jazmyn saw the rainbow first. "My god," she said. "Look!"
The people had stopped to watch a huge double rainbow arching from horizon to horizon. The rainbow’s colors hung in the sky bright as neon. Brice drove cautiously through the cars and trucks lining the roadway.
"I want to stop,’ Jazmyn said.
But when Brice pulled onto the shoulder, a hundred yards beyond the vehicles parked along the road, the rainbow had split and stood like two pillars of spectral light, separate columns rooted in the wet, empty land.
The mountain pass was slick with fresh-fallen snow. Then, they descended some canyons wild with rapids to a ridge from which they could see the ocean.
"We made it," Brice said. "We were stagnating back there. This is a new beginning. I guarantee it. This is a new beginning."
The road ended at the sea. They drove up the coastal highway to an abandoned sea-food place. The restaurant’s redwood decks had collapsed and were covered with brown sand. Jazmyn walked out to where ribbons of beached seaweed marked the edge of the waves. She had never seen the ocean before.
"Tonight, we’ll camp on a beach," Brice told her. She said that would be wonderful.
The coastal highway ran along the seashore for a dozen miles, then, snaked inward, climbing to headlands where the wind had dwarfed the trees into clumps of small, knotted brush. There were no towns along this part of the coast. The villages were inland away from the torrents of wind scouring the cliff-tops.
Brice pulled into an overlook. The vantage was marked as a place for whale watching and there was an emblem of binoculars on the state park sign. Some teenage kids were sitting at a picnic table drinking beer. A boy wearing a baseball cap was posted near the exit from the coastal highway as a look-out. Brice nodded to him, but the boy looked away.
Jazmyn said that she was tired and would wait for him in the car. Brice parked between the cars that the kids had driven up to the whale watching overlook and walked to the picnic table where they were sitting. The sea was underneath the mud cliffs, waves crawling over the shallow bay in long, white breakers.
Brice asked the kids if they knew a good place to camp at the beaches along the sea. "You can go up to the National Sea Coast. There’s a good campground a mile up the canyon," one of the girls said.
"Do you have to pay?" Brice asked.
"Yeah," the girl said, but she didn’t know how much. A boy said that he thought it was $30 or $40.
"I got to get another 200...250 miles up the coast," Brice said. "I’ve got enough for gas or enough to pay camping. But not enough for both." He glanced nervously over his shoulder to where Jazmyn was sitting in the parked car.
"Don’t you have a credit card?" one of the other girls said.
"I’ve got some but they’re not working right now," Brice told her.
Some cliff-dwelling birds rocketed up from below the precipice. Brice was startled.
"Isn’t there a place where I could camp right on the beach, you know, some isolated inlet or bay?"
"The land’s all owned up and down the coast," a boy said. "Except for the state parks and the National Sea coast."
"There’s a county park," a girl said. "With some sequoias, but I don’t know exactly how to get up there."
The girl sounded a little drunk.
A kid said to the others: "What about Mad Bay?’
"Mad Bay?" a girl asked.
"You know," the kid said, "a mile or two after the wildlife refuge, just by the duck ponds."
"That’s Mad Boy," the girl said. "It’s called Mad Boy Beach."
Another boy put down his beer can on the table. "You’re both wrong," he said. "It’s Mud Buoy." He pronounced "buoy" as "boo-ee."
"Yeah, Mud Buoy," the girl said. "We had to go up there with my biology class from the J. C. last year, when they had that problem."
"You can drive in pretty close," one of the kids said. "Look for an old sign that says Mad Buoy Beach resort. There used to be some cabins up the gravel road, but they burned down."
"Kids huffing gasoline," one of the boys told Brice.
"You have to walk the last couple hundred yards around the point," the girl said. "We had to go up there with our biology class last year."
"Is it nice?" Brice asked.
"It’s okay," the girl said.
"It’s okay," a boy repeated. "At least, no one will fuck with you up there."
It was getting colder and there was a brisk wind blowing off the sea. The kids at the table were huddled together like refugees from come fierce, internecine conflict.
"Do you see whales from up here?" Brice asked.
"I never seen one," a boy told him.
Brice went to the car and told Jazmyn that the kids had given him directions to a good place to camp on the beach. He drove down the driveway to the coastal highway where the boy in the baseball cap was standing sentinel, sulking in the bushes next to a big blue garbage barrel.
They drove for a few miles along wild coast marked as a bird sanctuary. The road crossed a marshy inlet where some sour lagoons exhaled a scent of sulfurous rot. Brice saw a weathered sign on the left side of the road, some letters and an arrow pointing down a narrow gravel lane. He turned and followed the gravel drive up and down over some roller-coaster hills, narrow ravines protected from the wind and luxuriant with willow trees and pines and bird song. On a hillside, some scorched wood was heaped on shattered concrete pads and, in the brush, Brice could see a torpedo-shaped propane tank overgrown with ivy. The lane dead-ended on a knoll overlooking a tidal flat slimy with black mud and broken shells. At intervals, there were two-by-six boards floating on the muck and making a crooked, disjointed pathway across the estuary.
"The beach is supposed to be around the point," Brice said. "Let’s explore and I can come back for the tent and cooler."
Brice led the way over the slippery wooden planks. Half-way across the mud-flat, Jazmyn noticed the fiddler crabs. The little animals were black and skittered like spiders across the foul-smelling mud. Jazmyn shrieked and gestured across the oily-looking mud toward the creatures moving in waves across the shell-encrusted slime.
"I’m not going any farther," Jazmyn said.
"It’s just a little ways, not too far," Brice said.
Jazmyn’s right foot slipped off the plank and sunk up to her ankle in the black mud.
"I can’t do this," she cried. "I can’t do this."
Brice took her by the hand and led her forward, sometimes yanking when she balked. They reached a yellow grass slope above the mud flat where a foot path led around the point to the beach.
It was blonde sand, a hundred yards wide and a quarter mile long, some sea-stacks out in the surf like ruined castles. A big dune backed the beach, steep and overgrown with vines, loose sand falling in chutes down the eroded surface of the hills.
Jazmyn sat on bleached stump of drift wood and Brice went back to the car for their tent and provisions. He had to make two trips and, on the second, he slipped off the planks and filled both his tennis shoes with rank-smelling mud. Brice was sweating and resentful by the time he reached the beach, dropping the cooler hard on the sand and, then, squatting in the surf to wash out his shoes.
When he set up the tent, Brice found that one of the support rods was missing and so the tent was deformed, half-collapsed on the stony terrace where he had moored it against the wind. "Looks funny," Jazmyn said. "It’s be alright for the night," Brice said shrugging.
Jazmyn put cold cuts on sandwich bread and they drank some beer. Brice made a fire but it burned only fitfully. Cold, wet clouds blew in from the sea and covered the sky. The night was very dark – the only light on the beach was the pale foam atop the waves, grey and very faintly luminescent.
It was impossible to sleep. The tent was pitched over patches of crumbling rock ledge and little stones under their bodies seemed to embed themselves between their shoulder blades and in their hips and buttocks.
Jazmyn said that she was cold and miserable. "I’m going to the car to sleep," she said. "No, you can’t make it," Brice said. "How are you going to get across that mud flat in the pitch dark?" Jazmyn said: "We can both go." "It’s better here," Brice said. "We don’t what kind of weirdos are wandering around in the middle of the night just off the highway."
They quarreled for a long time. Then, Jazmyn was quiet and Brice could tell from her breathing that she was asleep. He wondered how she could sleep on the hard canvas with the stones poking against her. The sea made complex, rhythmic sounds, sometimes very near to them and, then, incredibly remote. The sea shut out all other sounds and occupied all space from the sand and wreaths of weed on the beach to the very center of the sky overhead.
Brice awoke with an erection. He pressed himself against Jazmyn. She moaned and told him ‘no.’ Something was different – the air was heavier and the surf sounds seemed muted. The atmosphere was charged with a great, indefinite presence.
Brice sat up and wriggled through the tent opening.
"What are you doing?" Jazmyn asked.
"I have to pee," Brice said.
The dark was oppressive and, now, seemed tight around the little tent, claustrophobic. The beach had changed. A half dozen huge black boulders now protruded from the sand. Faint phosphorescence spackled the waves where Brice could see them between the big shadowy rocks. Brice stumbled forward. The boulders that had appeared on the beach were jet black and they seemed to have been smoothed and polished by the waves until they had no sharp edges.
Brice felt the sand moist and cold between his toes. He went between two of the big smooth boulders, leaning into the chill wind that surged off the sea. Suddenly, the air was suffocating with a smell like a fish-market, a raw bitter stink of dead fish. The odor was so intense that he felt dizzy. The boulder closest to him opened its great, mournful eye and Brice staggered backward. He put out his hand and touched the rock behind him. It was alive, a heavy breast-high wall of flesh, quivering slightly.
Brice ran back to the tent and told Jazmyn that she had to come out and see the whales stranded on the beach. She pulled a sweater over her head and crawled out of the tent.
"How many are there?" she asked.
"A half-dozen, at least, a half dozen," Brice said.
"I don’t know," Brice replied.
She walked to the whale closest to the tent. It was motionless except for a gelatinous wobble at its center. The whale’s tail tapered down from the animal’s big blunt head, lying inert in a tangle of seaweed. The other whales were aligned, as if they had all been swimming in a parallel formation when they crashed aground. Eyes wept sea-water tears, but the whales were weirdly silent. Brice expected them to make some cry of distress but they were still, almost motionless, their vast weight bearing them down so that they seemed crushed by their own helpless immensity. Puddles of water were impounded between the stranded whales and the air smelled of glaciers, the cold of the great depths, ammonia, and rotting fish.
"Why did they come here?" Jazmyn asked.
"We drew them in with our voices, when we were talking. They were lonely in the sea and they heard us talking –"
"We were fighting," Brice said.
"They didn’t know," Jazmyn said. "They came to help us. They’re mammals like we are and they knew we were in distress and so they came to help us."
"Well, they’re pretty much fucked now," Brice said.
"We have to help them," Jazmyn said.
"How are we going to help them?"
She put her hand on the flank of the big whale and began to stroke the animal the way you might pet a cat. Brice touched the whale beside him and felt that it’s skin was like wet leather, but more rough, scarred and bearing open wounds encrusted with sharp parasites.
"We have to call someone to help them," Jazmyn said.
"Who would we call?"
"We have to make a call and get help," she said.
"It’s a natural phenomenon," Brice said. "What’s the point of making a call? We’re not supposed to be on this beach. We’ll end up under arrest or something."
"You have to call," Jazmyn insisted.
"We didn’t call to report that rainbow we saw yesterday," Brice said. "This is just a natural phenomenon like that rainbow."
"No, this is different," Brice said.
Brice said he would make a call. He went to the tent and found his jeans and the cell-phone in his pocket. He expected that there would be no service. But to his surprise, the phone lit up and showed a signal and so he stood between the whales, pretending to dial.
"Who are you calling?" Jazmyn asked.
"My friend, up the coast, the guy in the conservation department."
"Can he help?"
"This is his area," Brice said. "He’ll know what to do."
Brice spoke into the phone, apologizing for the call in the middle of the night. He explained the situation briefly and, then, paused pretending to listen to a voice on the other end. After a minute or so, he said: "Okay, okay. I understand. Tomorrow first thing. No, nothing anyone can do now." Then, he paused for a few seconds before saying: "That’s good, dude. We’ll see you tomorrow."
He pocketed the phone.
"What did he say?"
"He told me it happens from time to time and there’s nothing anyone can do right now. He says the whales can live out of water for a day or two and that crews will be here first thing tomorrow to assess the situation."
"But you didn’t tell him where you were."
"I thought I did," Brice said. "I thought I told him we were at Mud Buoy Beach."
"I was listening," Jazmyn said. "You didn’t tell him where we were located. Didn’t he ask? Didn’t he want to know where you were located?"
"Of course," Brice said. "I told him right away. Before you were listening."
"I don’t think so," Jazmyn said.
"There’s nothing we can do," Brice said. "Let’s go back to sleep and people will be here tomorrow to help."
Jazmyn looked at him skeptically, but she let him lead her back to the tent.
The inside of the tent was warm and dark and smelled of their sweat. Jazmyn said that she thought she heard the whales moaning, but that it was a very deep sound, a tremor in the earth. "You felt an earthquake," Brice said. "It’s another sign, like the rainbow."
They lay on their backs with their hands palm-down on the canvas to sense movements beneath them. Then, it was light enough in the tent to see one another. Jazmyn was still sleeping, her face pale and indifferent to worry so that she looked like a little girl.
Brice crawled out of the tent. Two or three long-legged birds were dancing in the foam where the waves exhausted themselves on the beach. Where the sea spilled over the edge of the world, a ship dotted the horizon. There was no trace of the whales. Brice walked down to the edge of the water, standing at the place where the waves had made the sand compact and firm underfoot. His toes tingled in the cold sea water. For a moment, he felt the same sensation in the pit of his stomach that he had sensed when the flash flood waters momentarily buoyed up his car in the ravine in the desert.
Jazmyn stood by the tent. "Where did the whales go?" she asked. "I don’t know," Brice said. "The tide must have changed and swept them out to sea." "I don’t think so," Jazmyn said.
Brice took down the tent and packed it in its plastic sack. "We have to get off this beach," Brice said.
"Why? Aren’t we going to wait for your friend to come?"
"Who knows who he will bring?" Brice said. "There are warrants and I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to camp on this beach."
They pulled on their wet tennis shoes and Jazmyn said that she would carry the cooler back across the mud-flats to their car. The cooler was heavy and she had to stop several times to rest. The sky was pale white overhead, but the sun was hidden behind the coastal mountains and the beach and tidal lagoons were shadowy, washed by a wan, indifferent light.
Brice and Jazmyn packed the trunk of the car and drove back to highway. A couple miles from the gravel lane to the beach, two police cars came toward them, sirens sounding and red lights blazing. Brice pulled to the side of the road, muttering under his breath, but the squad cars passed, screaming around the curves that they had just navigated.
"That’s the people going to the beach, I suppose, to check on the whales," Brice said.
"We should have stuck around," Jazmyn replied.
"No, no, I don’t think so."
A highway came down from the mountains and intersected with the coast road under a flashing amber light. There was a truck stop and gas station at the intersection and Brice put some fuel in the tank. With his remaining money, he bought them a sack of donuts dusted with powdered sugar and two large coffees.
A dozen mile beyond the intersection, the road crested a hill overlooking the ocean and signs said that they were entering a National Seacoast. Jazmyn had to go to the bathroom so they stopped at the Visitor Center, a low-slung building standing on bluff overlooking fluted stone palisades and some battered rocks where leech-shaped seals were loitering.
Inside the building, a couple of tourists were browsing the exhibits. Brice used the toilet and, then, looked at a big map displayed on the wall. Jazmyn came from the bathroom. She took Brice by the wrist and led him into a small alcove where there was a mural showing whales inert and helpless on a beach. Some newspaper articles had been blown-up and posted on the wall opposite the large photograph of the helpless whales. A headline read Whales stranded at Mud River Bay.
The writing said that a pod of Right Whales had beached themselves and that the dying animals had been discovered by hikers camping near the seashore. Scientists, oceanographers from San Diego and the National Marine Mammal Stranding Network at Fort McArthur were summoned to the beach. Students from a local Junior College enrolled in biology and ecology courses also were bussed to the beach to assist in efforts to roll the huge animals back into the water. All efforts failed and the whales died. Birds began to peck the carcasses apart and the stench poisoned the air. After a couple weeks, the coast guard towed the decomposing whales out into the bay, inserted dynamite into the corpses and blew them apart. The text ended with this statement: "The causes for cetacean stranding remain unknown."
Jazmyn stared at the photographs showing the long, sleek whales sprawled on the beach. "Isn’t that what we saw?" she asked.
"I can’t remember if it was like that," Brice told her.
"It was the same pattern, the same number of whales," Jazmyn said.
They went to the car. The sun was high overhead.
"It’s strange," Brice said.
"There’s a meaning," Jazmyn said. "The whales were sent to us. They are a sign. Just like the rainbow, the whales were sent as a sign to us."
"But what does that sign mean?" Brice asked.
Jazmyn said: "I don’t know."