What is the liquid equivalent of unearthed? Not unwatered. Dewatered? No. How about dredged? That’s more about muck than water, but for my purposes, it will work on a metaphorical level, as in, to dredge up the past. Gloucester did not feel the full force of Hurricane Sandy this fall, which gouged out New York and New Jersey, remapping their shoreline and reminding us that water may be unpredictable, but so, it seems, is land. Still, we got bruised just being on the sidelines, as massive swells spewed up heaps of seaweed along with the usual flotsam, our floating history. On Raymond’s Beach along the outer harbor, big ticket items included fish bins, net balls, blue tarps, and a beige rug.
As Daisy ran up and down the beach sniffing out seagull wings, I gathered loose debris and moved it beyond the wrack line so it could be collected at a later date. Empty motor oil containers, rubber gloves, water bottles full of brown water, it seemed all I saw was trash. My friend, Jackie, who makes seaglass jewelry, once told me that you can look for seaglass or you can look for sea pottery shards, but you can’t do both at the same time. I was so focused on plastic I couldn’t see anything else, and nearly walked past a pale bisque figure the size of my middle toe.
Smooth as a pebble and blotchy with seaweed stains, this small seafarer had spent a lifetime under the concealing sea, maybe as long as a century, back when bisque dolls were commonplace. She is no longer that staid Victorian, but has undergone a sea-change. Naked, limbless, and marked with great age, she should be in a museum labeled “Salacia, Roman goddess of the sea.” Like other relics from an ancient world, the doll survived because she knew the great trick was to flow with the tide.
What of her past? She may have been left at the beach by a child, or fallen off a boat. Who says it was an accident? She could have been thrown out to sea by some snitty Edwardian toddler, or dumped as municipal garbage into the deep, as was our coastal custom not so long ago. She has holes at her shoulders where wire once allowed for movable arms, but salt ate the copper tendons, releasing first one arm from her body, then the other. The seas rolled her along the ocean floor, until one day she lost her head. Eventually she found peace wedged among the rocks, hidden by swaying underwater plants, with only a dull sheen of sunlight above. In time, her legs disappeared below her knees. No need for them in the place where legless creatures dominate. All the while, tidal sands brushed against her body, healing over the wounds and reducing her to a bare human essence.
Then a storm like Sandy comes along and changes the depth and nature of her sanctuary, shooting her back into the tides. How she materialized on Raymond’s Beach is a mystery. How I saw her is a miracle. Perhaps our eyes are programmed to spot a human form above all else. At any rate, she changed my focus. Seeing her nestled there in the sluice, the beach was no longer just a stretch of land where garbage comes to rest. Freshly washed by the outgoing sea, the wet sand glowed in the autumn light as gulls scoured the blinding waterline for morsels. Suddenly, instead of seeing nothing but garbage, all I saw was loveliness. I named the doll Sandy and took her home. She sits on the high ground of my desk, a lesson from Salacia’s realm: Do not just focus on trash, real or metaphorical, but keep your eyes and heart open for when random beauty comes washing up at your feet.
I hope you enjoyed JoeAnn’s beautiful writing. She is the author of the novels Addled and the forthcoming Float (Ashland Creek Press, February 2013). Float, set in coastal New England, involves the fishing industry, conceptual art, jellyfish, marital woes, and plastics in the ocean.