Nathan Leslie



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.
            He 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 ceaseless tide.