The blind beachcomber has fashioned an ambergris
divining rod of driftwood and shell fragments. In the morning he
wanders in the shallows, his forked creation leading him forward.
Once near a clump of ambergris, his divining rod bursts into full-quiver.
The sharpened point stabs into the clump, and guides it into the mesh
bag at his waist. It is something to behold.
sleeps under the docks of this town, and often eats day-old pizza from
Sal's garbage cans, but the blind beachcomber knows his ambergris.
During the evenings, he sits cross-legged on the boardwalk with quarter-sized
slivers of ambergris that he sells for a dollar a piece. "Beautiful
smells," he says. "Beautiful ambergris." The
tourists eat it up with a spoon, and buy his slivers so that he can leave
this place. Each summer he saves up enough to wander elsewhere,
but he's always back the next year. I hear he keeps his money in
a cigar box buried under the pier.
Once a week I'll check up on him, see if
he has enough water to drink (he always says yes), if he wants a cup of
fries on the house (no). He asks me if I want to buy some sweet
smelling ambergris, and I always do, though he gives me a discount.
At first I didn't know what it was, but he told me all about how sperm
whales eat cuttlefish, but that their stomachs can't handle the sharp
beaks. Last year he told me how the Greeks used to add it to their
wine, how many Arabs still use it for heart medicine, how the Chinese
thought it originated from dragon's drool, how rich Dutch and Englishmen
ate it on eggs for breakfast. "I find the beaks sometimes,"
he told me. "But I don't sell those. I collect those.
I got about one hundred and eleven cuttlefish hidden away."
I always tell him how nicely his ambergris
smells, and he smiles. "Doesn't it smell wonderful?"
He winks at me as if I were his granddaughter, and tells me how it remains
fragrant on the page of a book for forty years. "Just don't
get near it when it first comes of out them whales," he says.
"Then it's a whole different beast."
A couple of years ago I plopped down next
to him and I asked him about his life. He shook his head.
"I just don't want to relive it," he said. "I can't say."
Last week he was out early in the morning,
rod straight in front of him. For just a moment he reminded me of
a child trying to touch a piñata at a birthday party. I watched
him walk parallel to the shore, and then all of a sudden, the divining
rod swung ninety degrees towards the sea and dragged him along for the
ride. He walked into deeper and deeper water, until he went under.
I expected to see his gray hair pop up
from under the waves with a thick clump of ambergris on his rod, but the
water was silent. Two days later his body washed up on the sea,
wrapped in sargassum and flecked with sand and shells. I hear his
bag was gone, but that he still clutched that divining rod which jerked
from right to left, depending on the movements of the black clods in the