Jeff Gibbs


We were walking along the shore, Lila collecting skate eggs. She handed them to me—the black pods shaped like horned beetles—and I shook them as if they were baby rattles, listening for the mummified embryos to clatter around inside. I was disappointed when informed they had already hatched and shoved them down in my jeans pocket with a harrumph. "Know it all." Her straight brown hair was damp with sea mist, a patina of tiny, shimmering globes. Wrinkles scratched across her face like the canals of Mars, desiccated, reddish in the icy air.
      Ice floes dotted the horizon, chunks of the frozen Ipswich River that had drifted out into St. Anne's Bay. She smacked me on the shoulder and pointed.
      "Those are arctic ducks. Must have flown down from the North. You usually don't see them here."

      Three white birds bob up and down, the darkening waves sliding under them. They face north together against the wind, calm, quiet, watchful.

We were walking south along the shore, Owen collecting skate eggs. He held up the black horned pods—shaped so much like beetles—and shook them like baby rattles, listening for the mummified embryos to jangle around inside. He handed one to me and looked disappointed when informed it had already hatched. He shoved it down in his jeans pocket with a harrumph. Droplets of sea mist stuck to his blonde hair, a patina of shimmering globes, gathering. The dark lines on his face were like the patterns of bare tree limbs against a white winter sky.
      The ash gray of the fog blended in with the gray of the heaving ocean. Holding me lightly by the elbow, he pointed out to the horizon where white shapes appeared to bob in the air like ghosts.
      "What are those, then, smart-ass?"
      "Those? Ice floes, I think, sailing out of the Ipswich."
      Bits of mica collected on his cheeks and jaw, shining like slivers of mirror. His lips were trembling, the skin around them red from the wind whipping against it. He leaned in closer and I could smell the damp fabric of his flannel shirt.
      "And those?"
      The wind thrashed around us, enveloping our bodies in a roar as we stood facing the water.
      Two birds moved up and down on invisible waves. If they made noise, the breaths of wind and surf drowned them out. They sat like two silent lonely things, far away in the amorphous gray where the ice floes passed.
      Owen and I crossed overland, toward the river, moving over the rise and fall of the dunes. The plants here were rusty red and maroon in the winter, dripping with water condensed out of the omnipresent fog.
      "The river is ahead?"
      Owen's voice sounded separate from him, like something invisible walking near us, moving along the peaks and troughs of these hills of sand. Something that rises unseen out of the earth.

We were walking along the shore, and I was collecting skate eggs. I'd hold up the black horny cases and shake them as if they were baby rattles, listening for any sound of something moving around on the inside. Grady walked ahead. He turned and called to me, but being several yards ahead, his voice was sucked away by the breath of the surf hurtling headlong against the shore. He pointed out toward the horizon, which had sunk into a gray mist. I followed his finger and saw nothing at first and then noticed the white behemoths emerging from the fog. One of them surged upward like a gigantic ghostly finger and then fell flat. In a heave of ocean wave, it rose once more, jutting toward the sky.
      Holding the skate eggs up, I turned them about so that he could see what I had. He squinted and then nodded.
      "They've already hatched."
      Looking down, I discovered a moon snail stuck in a pile of gold seaweed. Its shell glistened like mirrored starlight. He still stared out at the white shapes in the sea.
      "Ice?" I shouted.
      He cupped his hand over his ear.
      "ICE?" I shouted louder.
      He shrugged.
      Birds are passing overhead. I hear their squawks, gulls by the sound of them, but they are invisible in the cover of fog and mist. Their voices diminish over the dunes, then fall silent.

We are skirting the waterline when I see Sawako round the bend and vanish.
      The scrub trees are silhouetted against the silver fog like kanji characters scribbled on soggy paper. Their shapes blur into the sky. The tide is rising. We have to follow along the base of the dunes and even then our feet get soaked by the freezing water. Black beetle-like skate eggs lie in lumps of red and gold seaweed on the sand. I call after her, wanting to point them out, but she is nowhere to be seen.
      Overhead, I hear the call of birds lost in the fog above us, and she reemerges, further down the beach. She is bent over and scanning the ground. In the distance, obscured by fog and mist, she looks as if she is floating in the middle of the gray sky, her white jacket billowing in the winds that rip shoreward.
      She turns toward me and holds her black hair back out of her eyes. Pointing, she indicates something on the horizon. I nod and squint out toward the waves as they lift and fall in heaves, but I see nothing. She points more insistently. I nod again, though I still see nothing. She seems to wait for some other reaction, and when I give none, smiles and resumes combing the sand. I walk fast toward her, trying to catch up. When I reach her, she is prying something out of a wad of sea grass—a moon snail, the end of the shell slightly broken but the rest of it shining, lustrous like mirrored starlight.
      She grabs my hand and shakes it, her fingers forming a warm cage around mine.
      "Just look at it!" she exclaims, holding up the snail. She gives my hand another shake, and then lets go.
      "Beautiful," I agree, and feel the lingering heat of her skin rushed away in the sudden sweep of cold wet wind over my fingers and palm.

I run ahead of him along the edge of the dunes, leaping out of the way of the surf as it slides up the sand like cold tongues lapping at my feet. My shoes and socks are already soaked. I cup about a dozen black pods in my hands. He tells me they are shark eggs, or that they belong to the shark family at least. A skate perhaps. They look like horned beetles and are mushy, so that I wonder at the strange life inside them. Rounding the corner, out of sight, I bend down and pop one open, but it's empty.
      I hear my name and he rounds the bend, tall, potbelly pushing out over his jeans. He smells like salty hair and tobacco and aftershave. The smells alternate, coming in waves as he moves toward me—briny, sweet, and herbal—and scoops me up in his arms, putting me on his shoulders so that I see them, out on the edge of the water, strange white things that seem to be passing slowly through the sky.
      "Are they birds?" I ask, but the sea drowns away my voice. He walks me toward the water, sloshing up to his knees into the surf. Bits of mist glisten in his black hair, like snow flutter on coal.
      There are more than one. A phantom mass rises and falls just ahead of us, shaped like some warning finger jabbing up at the sky. Another thin sliver slides behind it. To the left, still another passes with the heft and form of a small ship. They are gathering.
      He's shivering. His whole body is shaking. My hands grab his forehead to hold on as he wades out deeper. I want to see his face again, but cannot bend without falling, so I guide my hands over his eyelids, his nose, his cheekbones and mouth. The flesh is cold, damp, and thin. It grips the bones tightly as if trying to strangle them.
      The white shapes pass in profound silence, innumerable in the gray.
      "Are they ghosts?"

She asks what I have found, and I dump the moon snail and the black pods into her palms. She lifts them up to her nose and her whole face wrinkles, then she hands them back to me. The dunes rise behind us, covered in the malformed shapes of stunted trees. Their branches look like black arms struggling out of the sand. Little bits of mist coat her face, like slivers of mirror. Her skin is red and she shivers.
      She reaches out to hug me, but I run out ahead, along the shifting line that the water makes with the sand. Everything is in motion. Patterns of maroon circles radiate out from shells on the beach. Mica glitters silver. There's a wad of brown seaweed collecting under a mass of roots at the edge of a dune, undulating in the foaming surf. It is filled with the black pods, tipped at both ends with sharp horns like beetles. Eggs? I pop them open with my finger only to find them empty, then look out toward the ocean and think of all the infant fish struggling within the waves, those hungry waves that chomp and roar and gnaw the shoreline.
      There are shapes in the water, white things moving silent and lonely in a line toward the right. She comes up behind me and I lay the moon snail and the eggs on the mat of weeds. She places her hand on the back of my neck and I twist away, running up the sand. She shouts about danger, about rip tides and drowning. There are birds walking along the shore, away from us, and as I approach running, they rise on the winds, wings beating frantically down from the gray sky and circle upward, out toward the open water, vanishing into the fog before my feet touch the place where they walked.
      She is far behind me now, standing down the shore and waving with both hands, calling to me perhaps and looking small and frightened and alone, but her voice is sucked up in the breath of waves that erupt upward from the sliding sand at her feet.

We walk parallel, up and down the shore in the shape of a sine wave, retreating up the beach when the surf rolls in like sandpipers scuttling across the sand. The wind is beating us, whipping around in great frothing funnels. His skin and jacket are coated with fine white grains and my arms glitter with bits of mica. He is looking down, scooping objects off the sand. I see black shapes and white shapes vanish into his fingers and then down in the deep pockets of his jacket. I scan the ocean. I have a feeling that something is out there. I feel them, but the fog and the water blend into a wall of gray and it is impossible to see for more than a few yards.
      He squats and begins poking something with a stick, a mound of copper red seaweed and I stand over him, looking down at his black head glittering with globes of sea mist like stars newborn from the void. Then something moves out of the corner of my eye, a white shape and I whip around toward the water, surveying the gray. I think I hear him call my name.
      He rises and resumes walking, holding up something that looks like a horned beetle, turning it around and around. The wind makes his jacket snap.
      "What is it?" I ask.
      He scrunches up his face. He has not heard me over the surf. He puts the object in his pocket and proceeds up the beach. The fog slides in like tentacles, thickening. It swallows his figure sometimes, blotting him out with wet gray, but always he reappears further up the shore, a wavering shape. The sound of the waves thrashing the sand fills my ears and I see them to his left, far out in the water, like shadows behind a thin screen, whitish, growing. He vanishes behind a push of mist sliding out from the dunes and then reappears. Stopping, he turns and seems to be watching me, waiting. The water moves over his feet and the white shapes loom behind him and I start running up the beach, waving both my arms high over my head, shouting into the sound of wind and surf and distance.

The little black pods smell of brine and fish. The embryos have long fled and the cases are empty now, tangled in among the long strands of seaweed that lie lumped on the sand. I touch them in the middle, and the empty space makes them soft like a belly. I pick some out of the wreaths of red and brown sea grass and put them in my pocket. Some of them crack, the horns at the tip snapping off, but some of them stay intact. A little further along the beach I find a moon snail. The shell is perfect, no cracks, no holes, no dark spots, just a nautilus shape of lunar surface, colors glinting faintly in the gray light settling in from the sky—a strip of metallic blue, or purple, or pale pink and silver.
      A flock of white birds floats out on the waves. They sit on what looks like the edge of the world, where the fog and the gray water blur together and lose each other. They open their bills but whatever sound they make is stolen away in the breath of the ocean that creeps further and further up the shore. In the winter, the tides eat into the dunes so that the sand lies in shallow windrows in all directions.
      The birds look like strips of white paper soaking into the smoky sky. Silent amorphous shapes, lonely alien things bobbing in the waves, having traveled too far down from their home in the distant north. In a sudden rush, they rise off the surface, mute wings beating the air, soundless because of the surf chomping against the shore. Wind strikes me as they burst over, their squawks for a brief second audible, like human voices crying out and out, and then they swoop upward and to the right, gliding toward the river that lies beyond hidden in the fog.



This piece came out of his first trip to Ipswich Bay in the middle of February, when the ocean itself was freezing. The structure is supposed to mimic a fugue, with elements repeating themselves in different permutations, and also the cyclical nature of the seasons, which, despite being cyclical, always seem to roll toward an end with things being lost forever along the way.