The Answering Wave: Postcard from Mendocino

Big River Beach, Mendocino. Photo courtesy of author.

You go down to the beach.

It’s a tough place in winter, not a place for people allergic to disorder.

Sure, there are those who come to the beach to comb it. They take from it tumbled glass and polished pebbles and smooth small cobbles that fit in their fists and make them feel centered or at least safe. They take sea shells and driftwood and sometimes even trash or their dogs’ dark turds; but, for all their combing, the place remains ungroomed.

There is stuff thrown forth by the ocean everywhere. You step through the masses of marooned detritus, and you pick up nothing. You have left your comb home. You walk among and around the clots of sea foam, the long whips of kelp and the shards of shattered sea palms; the broken exoskeletons of crab and mussel and abalone, the animals they once contained long ago gobbled by the wheeling gulls; twigs and branches and entire tree trunks, twists of rope and tangles of line and a tattered stump stuck between two boulders the size of panel trucks. And beyond that, above what would seem to be the highest tide line, a rock clasped by a hank of kelp sheared off six feet above its base and still holding fast to what it must have thought was its anchor.

You can’t imagine how it got there. Big as a fat man’s head, it lies in the sand like an unanswered question amid pages of easy explanations. If you were Scottish, you might surmise this the result of a Neptunian hammer-throw; but you are not Scottish, and you don’t believe in Neptune, do you. Maybe an abalone diver, down on his luck, hauled it up out of frustration or for the lack of anything better to do and dropped it when the novelty had run its course. Maybe not.

It gets dark, and you go home, and you forget about the Quixotic beach combers and the unkempt beach, the ravaged crustaceans and the ravaging birds, the battered wood and the sliding sea foam and the sea palms torn from their moorings and the kelp-crowned rock. You get tired and you go to bed. You lie on your back listening to the soft staccato of the rain like listening to an audience of finger-snappers at a bookstore upstairs poetry night.

You sleep. You sleep. You sleep until something awakens you. What is it? What was it? You sit up. It’s three in the morning. Your wife is dreaming quietly beside you. The neighborhood windows are dark, the houses all huddled under the covers of the night. The only ones up besides you are the stars and the surf.

The stars are silent. The surf speaks in a monotone grumble insulting the crumbling cliffs. It is a quarter-mile away as the raven flies, down the hill and beneath the bluff. After a dozen minutes of mutterings, it seems to go still, seems to take a breath; and then, boom…sonorous and sea deep like the hand of a god slapping his thigh standing on the grass outside your door. It is a thing you feel as much as hear.

Then comes the answer falling upon you like a hammer thrown down through the roof. It lands in the lap of your imagination. It is dark and slick with sea foam and as big as a fat man’s head.

Phil Gallos has been a newspaper reporter and columnist, a researcher/writer in the historic preservation field, and has spent 30 years working in academic libraries (which is more interesting than it sounds). Most recently, his writing has been published in The MacGuffin, Stonecrop Magazine, Carbon Culture Review, and Foliate Oak, among others, and is forthcoming in The Wire’s Dream, Dark Ink Magazine, and The Writing Disorder. He lives and writes in Saranac Lake, NY., but spent the winter of 2015-16 on California’s Mendocino coast.

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