Tiny claws tickled our palms, and only Ben would confidently pick up the crabs, unconcerned about pinches. We peered into tidal pools, kneeling to get our noses up close, to watch creeping snails and huddled mussels, skimming our fingers over carpets of barnacles, stuck like superglue to the rocks. If we were lucky, we’d spy a bright purple starfish clinging to the underside of a boulder, but only if we craned our necks and bent low, our hair skimming the wet sand.
The four of us loved finding new Victoria Beach stops, and, on one particular day, Chris pulled the rental car over next to a narrow bit of shore that led to large rocks rising high, jutting east, piled atop one another out into the ocean. I spied a couple of sky blue Adirondack chairs crowning the summit.
Ben was young, then. Eight years old. Sarah was thirteen, and trustworthy. But, Ben lived in his own head, explorer and defender of his realm, and quickly climbed the hill. I hurried along behind, to keep up and keep an eye on Ben, who was only focused on his feet.
At the top, I collapsed into one of the chairs, able to see Ben descending below me, toward the ocean, blonde head tilted down. But, this wasn’t the usual lapping water. We were further out, and the waves were crashing aggressively against the jetty, and Ben stood on a flat, mossy rock jutting into the water. My mommy-antenna was vibrating when I noticed a speedboat in the distance, trailed by a large wake.
Facing the swelling sea, I felt myself expand, amplifying in size, rearing up into a hulking beast of terrifying strength, able to repel an asteroid, rebuke a tornado, reverse the tide. I morphed into a gorgon with serpents curling about my head, horrifying to view.
I began shouting urgently in a commanding voice, one Ben couldn’t ignore. My call was primal, a booming, strident black bear-elephant-tiger-lion-queen-of-the-sea-voice, “Ben, come back NOW! NOW! The waves are coming! Climb up the rocks NOW!”
Ben’s usual haziness was replaced by acute, white-hot clarity. He scrambled hands and feet, hands and feet, up the wall of rocks, and the boat flew by and a wall of water jumped so high, covering Ben’s rock with a crash of spray, several feet of water rushing over and then sucking out into the deep. Ben and I stared, frozen, horrified at what would have been, at the unapologetic sea, at the growling, rumbling, grabbing arm of dark water, watching, dumbstruck as the moment passed, as the dark monster sighed and turned away.
When I was a little girl, my daddy would scoop me up from where I was digging holes in the sand and carry me into the ocean at Atlantic Beach, hoisting me into a piggy back ride. His skin was sticky with sunscreen, and my body seemed to be glued to his back, but I still clutched at his neck and shoulders, shivering and expectant. Daddy was pale and soft, being a man who worked at a desk, not an outdoor laborer and not a sportsman. But he plowed through the cresting waves to reach the good part, where the water shimmered like glass for minutes at a time, then bubbled into a swelling wave that lifted us into the air if it didn’t break in a roar onto our heads, thrusting us downward and forward, in a wringer, and taking Daddy’s sunglasses off his face.
My heart pitter-patted away, like I was on a roller-coaster, but I squealed for more, more, wanting to get close to the monster, but, at the last minute, to escape by just a fingertip or a strand of hair. I found myself sucked down into the salty sea, a patch of ice-cold water flowed by my legs and then tendrils of seaweed wrapped around an ankle. My toes grazed the soft muddy bottom and a claw or a mouth bit me and I jerked my foot up and flailed my arms and legs, pushing to find my way to the surface. Then, Daddy’s arm reached around my trunk and lifted me up and I popped above the water, sputtering out salt and snot, and grabbed his neck and yelled, “Again! Again!” He shook his head and laughed and asked, “Are you sure?” And, I plastered myself around him and faced the shore, peeking over my shoulder, looking for the big one. Clinging to the tree that wouldn’t break.
Shaken and somber, none of us had the stomach anymore to explore another beach stop after Ben outran the Pacific Ocean. We headed home on the two-lane beach road as it curved away from the water, through a neighborhood with me staring out the window in silence, replaying the film in my head, white-hot with panicky unease. Then, the traffic slowed and stopped, and, up ahead, we could see that people were out of their cars and looking down, along the edge of the road. No one seemed anxious, just inquisitive. The four of us got out to see what was happening.
Ducks. The cars had come to a complete stop for a family of ducks.
The mottled brown mother duck was racing back and forth at the side of the road, honking and squawking, frantic and feral. All but one of the ducklings were obeying, following mama out into the traffic, in a line, to get to the earth on the other side. But one little guy was holding back, stuck behind a curb, quivering.
Mama duck hurried back for the last child, the one who didn’t follow along. She called him, in her quacking, strident black bear-elephant-tiger-lion-queen-of-the-road-voice, demanding obedience.
Then, out came the straggler, a brave ball of fluff. Skittering across, between the cars, under the cars, out from under the cars—herded a bit by all of us—the chick followed her mama, who was leading the way, until all the ducklings were safely on the other side, away from the feet and the tires. Task accomplished, mama duck turned towards us and let loose a string of quacks and honks, warning us to keep our distance, claiming her own.
I heard a news story about a mother wrenching her child away from a mountain lion and was struck by the reporter’s incredulity, his amazement that the mother could find the wherewithal to do such a thing. The journalist, I surmised, was untethered by offspring, had never felt the instinctual fortitude required to step in front of a train.
I, though, felt a visceral kinship to the lion-fighter and to all the other parents who’ve gotten in the way of fangs and furies. Because, as the moment passed on that Victoria shoreline, and the dark monster sighed and turned away, I felt naked, like I’d been seen for what I was––an animal, unclothed and unmasked, vicious, guarding her own. Nature and I had clashed and knew one another to be one and the same––beautiful and peaceful one moment, ugly and fierce the next, with only one clear line in the sand.