What follows is about half of a piece I found in my grandfather's - Leonard Dankmar Weil's - non-fiction writing about an island he bought for his new wife (or did they buy it together?) on their first anniversary. It is called Sea Life and Loves. Some background information: Grace and Leonard are newlyweds. The island is Outer Island in the Long Island Sound. Addison is a neighbor lobsterman.
I hope you enjoy this wonderful writing. Please excuse typos and spelling errors. I have chosen to first capture his writing exactly as I found it. Occasionally there is a word missing because I can not read his handwriting in the original. Edits to come later. More to come...
L shouts, “Come here. Quick!”
G. comes running.
“Oh a jelly fish,” she says without excitement.
“I never saw one before; outside of an aquarium,” he explains by way of apology.
“They’re a scourge and a menace,” destroys G.
“It’s gorgeous, Leonard says indignantly, “Erotically beautiful.”
With that encouragement, the jelly fish weaves itself in and out in luxurious sensuality. It reminds him of a highly-sexed woman langorously walking her charms, conscious of every fibre and every movement. It dilates its upper translucent bowl, propelling itself slowly forward, drawing its red streamers after it. Its bowl six inches across and perhaps an inch thick draws in and puffs out in calm assured rhythm.
Gently a wave turns it over and all its inner charms are on display.
Leonard put my arm around G’s shoulder and speaks of the octopuses in the aquarium at Naples and of what an octopus aroused in a lady in Mare Nostrum. G inclines to Leonard and to his view, watching with warm attention the systole and diastole of its viscera. The pulsation of its parts is an example and an invitation. It swells and contracts beside the pier proceeding in mild bursts, trailing its rosy clouds of glory behind it.
The seducer draws up warmly to each other as we watch its dilations, entranced. We need no further bidding. No word need be spoken. We are together in warm thought and warm hope.
But words are shouted and we jump apart, our bubble rudely burst by an outer thrust. We separate shocked and as though guilty.
“What are you looking at?” are the words, from Addison in his lobster boat.
He approaches and lands. “I saw you standing there while I was pulling pots and got sort of inquisitive, “ he says. “Oh a jellyfish. Betty Janice sat on one of those last month and boy did it sting her! It’s the red part that stings something awful.”
This is far from out last intimacy with jellyfish, though several days pass before we see another. My admiration for them rapidly decreases for, as he comes to know them better, those qualities which he had first so admired disappear behind a cloud of less pleasing impressions. For him they follow the law of sociologists and managers of fashionable hotels: though one or two of an alien group may always be welcome, a regiment of them is horrid in the extreme. How can he continue to look fondly at one, when his memory soon lists under jellyfish the thousands which arrive one day polka-dotting the green sea with orange brown, making swimming painfully impossible, strewing our shore with brown gelatine dishes of no pleasing stench, forcing him to load them into buckets and [ ] to toss them over our breakwater, stinging himself and wearing him into a state of jaded weariness. No langorous movements of theirs can arouse me again.
To be sure they do not trouble us long. Those that do not remain to grace our beach drift off the following day to pester bathers farther down the Sound, and such a Cooks tour of them we are told curses our water on two or at the most three days a year.
Whereas a beach full of stranded jellyfish is unpleasant to the senses, a single creature presents unexcelled opportunities for studying the wild life and sanitation of the sea shore.
On a daily survey of our [ ], we come upon a pool with a jellyfish locked in by the receding tide. We pause to observe it, to see if it can contrive to free itself by turning to the right and passing through an outlet to the sea. But we find immediately that its position in the pool is hopeless, that if it is not dead, it certainly should be, and that the movement of its rosy train is generated by the pool not the creature.
Somehow a signal has gone out through the water, advising sea life of the death on shore. By a wireless message of some strange sense, perhaps through Fabre’s odor that travels like sound, perhaps by chemical change, the word of food has reached dozens of crabs and they have arrived and are arriving to devour.
For the most part we see crabs in shells like tiny snails. We notice snails here too crawling peacefully along the surface of the fish. But the crabs are more warlike. Their bodies are stretched out perhaps an eighth of an inch from their half-inch shells as they scratch and squabble with their one-sixteenth inch claws.
Little green crabs come, rock crabs a whole inch in diameter, bustling the snail-like crabs out of the way as they snatch at their jello and sidle off with it. The snail crabs burrow, the green crabs bustle, all silently scavenging. Then suddenly they sense what we sight, commotion. A dreadnought enters the scene – a dark brown crab two inches across, tearing along sideways, its two claws outstretched, ready for food or battle. It is strange how rapidly we have accustomed ourselves to the scale of what we are observing for this two inch fellow appears a giant to us. He is a ferocious dragon terrifying us who have shrunk to a sympathetic communion with our little scavengers. But we do not chose to interfere with this dreadnought in battle array. We expect a war but the pugnaciousness of the protagonist is frustrated not by superior force but merely because its smaller relatives are amenable. A great space is cleared, the giant sets quickly to work, jerking off portions of the meat then rushing off once more, two claws full. Back go the minions to their burrowing and pinching.
We leave them. When we return half a day later only a few shreds of jelly fish remain, each commandeered by a hungry crab.
We stand for a time talking and watching the water beside the pier. “I guess I’ll have to drag,” says Addison, preparing to leave. Schools of minors swim by.
“Look at them,” says our Captain. “No shortage of them out this way.”
Suddenly we hear the slight plop of a small object striking water. “Snappers,” says Addison immediately attentive.
“Here, wait a minute. I brought this along,” says he and he trundles into his boat. Soon he comes forth with an armful of net, enmeshed by his burden. He stretches it out full length along the pier. “We’ll seine’em,” he says, and so we do.
Leonard is bid to [ ] [ ] which holds on end and to march along the beach holding it low; Addison sloshes into the water in his hip boots, dragging his [ ] below the surface. We parallel the shore from the pier to the slums where Leonard is ordered to stand still while Addison turns in quickly. The net bellies out full as Ad pulls rapidly and hard. They bring it through the water convinced that it is empty, but as it reaches the beach its cargo grows visible.
Nestling between blobs of completely translucent jelly masses are bits of seaweed, a pair of stray crabs and scores of flopping minnows. L feels like shouting thanks for his success to the gods in mythical South Sea Island fashion. We have achieved a conquest, a minor harvest but a harvest just the same.
G is called to bring a pail and our bait is transferred eagerly to it.
“We’d better haul it again,” says Ad. He can’t resist it though we have more minnows than we now need.
The result is much as before, though this time our catch includes a new type of jelly fish – a veritable electric light bulb in shape and appearance if not in texture. Through it its filaments are plainly to be seen, coursing with rainbow light.
“They don’t sting,” Addison advises us as he splashes the cargo of jellies into the Sound. At once they assume invisibility except for a pair of bulbs whose veins can be seen flowing with rainbows.
“Clean off the net now so it wont rot,” and we dance it up and down in the Sound splashing it with water. “Hang it up to dry,” and we do, along the fence beside the bath house.
“Now I’ll rig you up a line,” says our master, and he carefully ties lines to [ ] [ ] bobs and hooks. He fishes too a bit, showing us how to tell delectable little snapper blues from scaley though edible little conners.
“Enough for a meal,” says Addison as he finally makes up his mind to desert the fishing. He leaves us his catch to supplement our own. “She’ll be made enough about my being so late,” he admits, “without her finding out I was fishing all the while.”
For the most part, the youngsters of Stormy Creek are more energetic and more gainfully employed than their elders. Whereas the physically mature males of the town spend much of their daylight hours seated on the post-office steps or at the town dock, the ten-or twelve-year-olds catch and sell fiddlers. Any morning when the tide is out, in the shallow portions of Stormy Creek harbor, waders can be seen bearing little cans, scrutinizing the floor of the sea, reaching down with excitement.
They bring up from the bottom a strange and exotic type of crab, a phenomenal little crustacean with one small claw well suited to a crab with a body an inch across and one huge fantastic claw of greater size than the body of the animal itself. When the boys have filled their cans with a multitude of the buzzing climbing creatures or when the tide comes in too far for wading, the catchers return to their preserves and empty their cans into their fiddlers’ home, a wash tub with a clod of dirt in the center and a lake of water around it. Here the fiddlers live in joyous buzzing, fiddling noiselessly upon the gigantic claw with their tiny one. Here they eat scraps of meat or each other and wait for the day of sale. Then their impresario bobs fifty or a hundred fiddlers into a can and sells them for a cent or a half-cent or two cents each depending on the wealth and gullibility of the fisherman.
Fiddlers are the standard fare for blackfish in the Island district and we are not at Two Tree long before we are advised, nay importuned, about them. We purchase a noisy can of the distorted creatures, hoping to exchange each for a weighty blackfish. But something goes wrong with our rate of exchange; the value of the fiddlers presumably departs from the blackfish standard; for there seem to be few blackfish at the end of our lines and few fiddlers remain there.
As time progresses we grow bold in our Island activities. Experimentation sets in. We try all segments of our rock ledge shore searching out the coy fish; away from our mentor’s watchful eye we examine the Island for bait.
We had seen crabs in our little pools, not fiddlers to be sure, but better balanced crabs whore right claws are no larger than their left. There are green ones and red ones and tough little black ones. We raise rocks within the pools and grab. Our eyes become accustomed to their amazing protective coloration. G becomes the spotter and L the catcher. Soon we find more pleasure and excitement in the crab search than in its ultimate purpose, fishing. We decide that we are much like most of the capitalists in this acquisitive phase of America’s history, for we are more interested in the quest of accumulation than in the transfer into fish of our hoardings.
But when we find that the crabs of our Island are as useful in fish catching as fiddlers are more happy to achieve, we feel that we are more true islanders, that we have advanced several days in our islandization. And gradually the self-sustaining ideal commences to form.
In these days it is more the feeling that we will be better able to get along if storms isolate us from the shore. If Addison, our umbilicus, is blocked from brining us supplies from the mother land we will be that much less likely to starve.
We have never been ones to deny our profound interest in procreation. Modes of multiplication never bring us vexation; the rule of two, whereas it may perplex us, is always pleasing to our eyes; so that when on day in our search for bait we discover a fine specimen of crab tearing along a pool bottom with his inamorata in his arms, we do not rudely throw the two in our milkbottle jail to be used for catching blackfish.
Our young Lochinvar is of half dollar size and his lady love is not much smaller. He carries her firmly embraced as he sidles rapidly toward a new dark hiding place. We leave them there for a time as, identifying ourselves with the objects of our examination, we do not wish to distress them too rudely, but we find ourselves searching for other crabs only half-heartedly and soon science triumphs over gentle chivalry. We return to the mater.
We discover that in the mating that male crabs are hard of shell, while females are soft and yielding. Can it be that lady crabs to be matable must have recently shed? We learn that the male is costumed like a Medieval gent with a triangular flap in the front of his trousers. And we ascertain too that crabs are not monogamous, for there happens to be another soft and yielding lady in the pool and when our master is separated from his first mistress he wastes not a moment but is on with the new, as quickly as he can cross the pool.
Our next lesson is that crab procreation is not all galloping around rockfilled pools. A day later we uncover a roe crab. We are amazed for this patient lady carries her badge (or rather badges) of motherhood spread all across her front; a great cluster of tiny eggs is secured beneath a flipper but overflows in all directions yet remains firm wherever she goes.
We tell Addision about our find, and he obliges us with the recitation of a parallel case in the lobster world. A few days later he brings for our inspection a roe lobster on the underside of whose flipper is an abundance of red eggs. He speaks indignantly of competitor lobstermen who scrape off the roe and sell the lobsters as though they were not burgeoning. They are lawbreakers and they destroy their own business as well. He, Addison, either throws back roe lobsters or takes them to the State Department of Fisheries where they are marked for observation and thrown into the Sound.
We walk into the black night and see pinpoints of stars and a shawl of massed star clusters. The air is cool and tonic. We walk down the alley of black shapes of appletrees and reach the grey road of dock. The sea whispers a background for the crickets’ sharper song. Fireflies follow us to the edge of the pier but no farther; foliage seems to be their luring ground; as will o’ the wisps they are satisfied to bring their clients scratches and tears from bushes and brambles. They leave drownings and shipwrecks to other more seagoing panderers.
Suddenly we discover their maritime counterparts. We glance at the water’s edge beside the pier and find that where the sea laps against the sand, tiny particles glow in the water. Dots of light, like the fireflies above, flow in small cascades along the beach. We can’t resist this lure and vault to the sand, there to splay our fingers in the cool ripples. The little lights rest against our hands, gently illuminating.
Leonard picks up a handful of sand and fling it into the quiet water. For a moment the sea is alive with specks probed to light the sand. We toss sand, then stones, then water into the Sound. The response does not fail us: garlands, arcs, streams of tiny lights, minute, near each other, a replica of the galaxies in the Heavens.
We dare not resist the temptation any longer. We hurry out of our clothes and, nude, march into the black sea. Each step is a luminous marvel; each kick is an electric charm. We go farther into the water ignoring as best we can the shock of the cold against our tenderer portions, wondering whether the beauty we are seeking is worth the chill of our middles and our chests. Doggedly we persevere, frozen marches to glory.
Then G plunges and her body is a torch. L guiltily plunge second and our torches parallel. It is worth blue cold and more. L swims up few, too rapid strokes, each arm thrust is a pyrotechnic display. He becomes godlike as every motion sets forth a burning stream. He watches G’s floating body a kindled beauty in the lights.
We are silver fishes, one thrashing and boystrous; one tranquil and radiant. We are ubermenshen, transfigured by a glory in phosphorous – godlike creatures so long as we dare. Then we hurry to the shore, gleaming, bejeweled. As we rise from the sea, stars cling to us; we are constellations drying off in the cool of the evening.
The next night is deeper black. The sky is clouded and no moon can shine through. We amble down the black path, avoiding the trees as best we can. We have come to see the Sound again in phosphorescent splendor. Out on the pier we look at a greater marvel than we had witnessed before.
The sea is a living nightmare of sky suddenly gone mad. Stars are boiling about in luxurious confusion. Everywhere the particles are milling, every star calling on every other one, swimming about in madness are gorgeous moons bobbing and swaying.
It means that in water charged with phosperescente, a school of minnows has come, each minnow swimming jerkily, passionately, its every movement lighting up a profusion of light-giving minutiae. Everywhere within our harbor, the schools mill and, throughout, the water is glowing. The moons are the small radiant bulblike jellies we had found in our net. As we climb down closer to them we can see the glowing streams of prismic light.
Suddenly as we watch, greater comets appear, faster thicker lines of light in wider more eccentric sweeps. The smaller stars increase their speed as the comets burst among them. The eels are rising from the bottom, igniting circles among the minnows, their prey, raising the water sounds into violent swishes.
Again we cannot resist the spell. Clothes are stripped off and we plunge among them, radiant minnows pinging against our skin. Sight sound and touch are exalted. We are gigantic signs in a great white way with eels as neon lights and jellies as street lamps. We are godlike once more in a world of minor glowing creatures; milling through the heaven of darting lights.
We are jeweled, celestial, glowing and immortal.
In the morning L goes down to the shore to see if he can determine the cause of the lights. Can they be chemical or animal. The water looks clear, but on examination it proves to be filled with blobs of jelly and with tiny objects like opalescent minute shrimps.
L takes the blobs of jelly and places them in a pan. He fills a milk bottle with salt water and his tiny shrimps. When the night comes he agitates both.
Shrimp, not jelly, illuminate our heaven.
[To be continued...]