Sara Kirschenbaum
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Buried Treasure - Part Two

Posted Monday, Mar 30th, 2009 at 1:43pm

Here is the conclusion of (my grandfather) Leonard Dankmar Weil's piece called Sea Life and Loves. It takes place in 1927 and was written, I believe, a few years later. It is about their life on Outer Island in the Long Island Sound, off the coast of Connecticut. It is presented as written, completely unedited - that will come later.

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Barnacles are renowned as quiet steadfast inert creatures, and so when we see them in flocks and sheets along our rock ledges, we pay little attention to them. Our interest in sea life is beguiled by the flashier and the more fleshy denizens of our shore. For example we develop a great fondness for periwinkles. Addison has given us several to use for bait. We admire their graceful shells and we are pleased when we quickly learn to dissect them for fishing purposes. When some new winkles decide to crawl up our beach we welcome them, and our pride and interest in them knows no bounds when on day L discovers a winkle partway sneaking from its shell to pay a visit to the shell and person of its mate. [Or should it be called mates as the Encyclopedia informs us that winkles are hermaphroditic.]

Thus in our quest as emotional naturalists we tend to ignore the tiny shellfish that we look upon as drab. Any day at low tide we can see thousands and thousands of the inert creatures seeming more rocklike than the ledges themselves. As we grow more nautical we recognize that we have been a little in error about the creatures because of their facility in attaching themselves to our boat bottom, but even so we can not believe that our own tenants have been so flighty as to leave our shore.

Then one day as we are sit fishing on our rocks we discover that barnacles are not so quiet as we reckoned. In fact as we sit beside them we are amazed to hear them in a perpetual state of whispering. As each wave splashes against the rocks, the barnacles open their shells, stick out their tongues or antennae, wag them a bit and as the waves recede, draw in their tongues and swish shut. We can hear their whispering noises, the gossips, but it is not until the following spring that we discover what they can be conversing about.

When we return to the Island we perceive that our rocks are covered, deluged, with millions of new baby barnacles. Some old barnacle buck was roving and active. They had cause for gossip. +++++++++++++++

G knew clams spit, but Leonard, the inland born, will not believe it. Those who have never seen the phenomenon are loath to grant such a display of insolence. Even when Leonard, walking along the low tide shore, felt moisture up his trouser leg, he would blame it on sloshing in the ooze.

Old Bradley one day insists that we are not taking full advantage of our Island when we do not eat its steamers. So with shovel and rake, we go to the grounds which he indicates.

There through a minute drenchings L becomes acquainted with clams’ abilities and accuracy with the juice. L resents their le’se majeste’ but resolves to make the most of it. We tramp heavily in the goo watching for guysers, ready to pounce if we’re plastered in the eye. When the telltale spout appears leaving a tiny hole in the mud as a marker, we dig with fury, using shovel and rake and fingernails, as the clam burrows lower, racing away from us. We must capture the vile culprits. Non sputare on our shores.

A quart of steamers are an hours reward, along with a bath of black mud and a backache. But we have a mess of steamers and a good time and two cups of clam broth and the Island food emergency list is swelled with a luxury.

There are mussels too on our slopes and oysters in our pools, so if we are marooned on a month with an R we can live on great delicacies unless the star fish and oyster borers have robbed us of our fare.

For star fish, our dear star fish, we learn are a menace to big business with bounties on their heads. We have been delighted when we discovered starfish clinging nonchalantly to our rocks. We had watched them pleasurable, intently, as they moved slothfully along, with the minute glassy feelers which covered their undersides. To hear that they engulf oysters and drain them, displeased us but we can not bring ourselves to cause their destruction. They teach us to understand how the more decorative and pleasing of rogues can tread the world unpunished while ugly villains are penalized for their crimes.

And as it is big business that they trouble we consider them little Davids and L maintains his liberal attitude.

We can see the annihilation of oyster borers without a qualm for they are merely small snaillike creatures with pointed shells, who drill into oysters and feed upon them. We call them our enemies on our shores, though starfish please us, and our only conclusion is that it is best to eat oysters before they do.

The mere presence of oysters does not make eating them easy. One of L’s first Crusoe acts was trying to open the tight things, but a normal incision left them shut and a crack on a rock destroyed the [ ]dity for filling the oyster with shell specks. Many oysters are destroyed, uneaten, before L asks Addison for the nack of opening the canny fish. He demonstrates by opening and eating a large one. When L tries inserting the knife as he did the only result is a cut finger. Next time Addison grudgingly shows more slowly so [ ] L can learn [ ]. A knife through the muscle and another along the upper surface must be applied before the shell can be separated. Only then can the juicy body be devoured from its shell platter. We find the taste metallic, but pleasantly so. Addison explains that oysters in stores, in fact everywhere but from a beach have been washed so thoroughly as to have had most of the flavor removed. We foreswear stores and restaurants and vow to cleave to Island oysters, strong and natural.

In every lunar month comes a day when the tide goes farther out and rises higher than the others. This is perigee tide (G pronounced as K by the [ ]) and a great boon to the boat launchers. Each year there are perigee tides which magnificently exceed the normal perigees. On such days we make long examination of our shore.

We discover boulders and passage ways and queer types of seaweed which normally are hidden by the water of the Sound. We learn where swimming would be safe at high tide and where the banks are too steep and slippery for crawling out of bathing.

To the north the island grades off into mud and ooze; to the west the rocks continue their slope; to the south we find passages and pools and slimy boulders; but in the east the Island takes on an entirely new aspect. There are rocks and boulders here of many sizes and colors stretching out a greater distance than the new land in other quarters. About two hundred yard to the east is a mass of rocks slightly visible at high tide – the Outer Thimble; when the tide is far out these rise massive and triumphant and our shore tends far toward them. The distance can be forded if the walker is careful not to twist an ankle slipping over boulders and stretching over sink holes.

One day on the tide-out exploration Leonard comes upon a tiny horsechestnutlike creature which he recognizes at once and carries with excitement to G. It is an old old friend and more welcome than many a noisier friend might be. It is another hearkback to the days at Porquerolles as emotionally remenisential as that orange-sailed boat of our first day. It is an oursin, an urchin, a round and spiney echinus.

In the old days in the South of France we had often seen lads with long cleft bamboos spearing in the water for these brown prickly creatures. One day we followed their example and brought home with us a basket full of the spherical mysteries. We brought them to our source of all knowledge, Madame Sinesse of the Cooperitif, and asked her why the boys should be hunting them so ardently.

“Ah they are elegant,” said our Provencal sage, “They are a delicacy, for example. Oursin. Marie, bring me the scissors.”

With an oursin in one hand and the scissors in the other, Madame made a deft motion. There was a cracking sound, then a series of them, as she clipped a lid off the spiny animal. Then she shook; out of the urchin fell a quantity of slime and tiny pebbles. She held the creature to us, its spines weaving and wandering spindles. We looked within. “See that,” said Madame Sinesse, pointing to an inch long bit of red flesh. “That is delicious,” and she scooped it out and chewed it with the utmost pleasure. “They are very desirable as hors d’oeuvres in Paris.”

So we took our prizes home and resolved to serve them as appetizers with our next meal. We clipped off lids and emptied out pebbles and scooped out the cock’s comb and took them to our dining room. There we each tasted one, speaking gaily of Praniers chez nous, and no food being too great a delicacy. Then we both put down our delicacies and spoke affectionately of old trusty victuals like spaghetti and ham and eggs. We returned to the kitchen for our standbys and discovered to our utter amazement that the shells of our erstwhile appetizers were all on parade. They had marched off the table and were propelling their spiney way along our kitchen floor.

So it is that with such a glowing memory we greet with delight our delegate from the Mediterranean. We let it twirl its spines along our hands, using us as its compatriots had used our kitchen floor. Then with a ceremony we placed it back among the rocks on our Eastern shore. Had we even craved a taste of its cock’s comb we would have doubtless done the same. We bid it a fond goodbye, urge it to multiply and go about our business.

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Addison says, “If you go out at night just to look at the water, why don’t you try some fishing?”

We ask if there is a chance of catching any.

“Sure,” he says, “Jack ‘em. With a searchlight.”

“Isn’t that against the law?” L asks

“Not in salt water,” says Ad. “You can’t do it in a lake but here it’s all right.”

So we prepare and that night at dusk we set about to catch the weakfish which Addison commends to us.

G shines; L holds; L shines; G holds. Soon there is action from the sea bottom. A nibble. Lost bait. Then another. Then suddenly there is more than a nibble. L excitedly hoist a crab to the surface of the water, but to my dazed sorrow it falls off. G tries this time and manages t raise a crab to the level of the pier. They are large red creatures. Surely they have not been cooked!

For a time there is no action on our line. We watch the space on which the light shines and see great quantities of minnows attracted to the glare.

Then there is a pull and great play as the line swishes. The pole bends and creeks. We can see a strange object twisting below, apparently performing miracles, for at times it seems huge and at others minor. There is a great swishing and fluttering as I hoist to the surface what looks like a kite.

We bring it up and stare. It’s back is brown and horny and heart-shaped. From the heart’s crotch a spiny tail projects. The heart’s lobes flop a rhythmic dance until with a twirl the thing has turned over and the brown animal is white. It is a white heart now with a white tail, the tail beating about, the lobes flopping, but in the lamp’s light we see a startling and macabre thing: the hook and line emerge from a mouth in the upper center of the whiteness and above the mouth are nostrils and above that two tired eyes. It is an old man’s face glaring at us, a very harassed countenance grafted to the queer fish. We look with troubled amusement at the visitor and expect him at any moment to tell us that he will do our bidding but that we should not ask to be more than Popes or Kings.

We assay our glowering visitor and decide that there would be nothing edible on him even if we could bring ourselves to this cannibalism. So we unhook him with difficulty, finding that his teeth are better than most old men’s, and willingly we launch him back into the Sound.

Then we catch a fish. Much to our amazement we bring up a genuine fishshaped fish, but it is no weakfish or blackfish or bluefish. It is a hideous bulldogfaced creature, small and ugly, with wattles and spines, and a head quite larger than the rest of its body. We do not fancy this thing at all, gnarled and gaping in the halflight. G tries to remove the hook but it is no easy task and she is called upon to foreswear her principles by asking L to do the unhooking. L steps on it to hold it secure for the removal and as L does so it lets out a horrid cry. Fishes with faces, fishes that shout, this is surely a nightmare world, angling at night. With another grunt and snarl, the fish manages to disgorge the hook. L leans over to pick up the prize but at the same time the fish leans up and catches my sweater. There it stays, clamped with strong teeth and jaws. L struggle but there is no unloosening it. Perhaps it will always be there, a spine in the sweater. But when L gives up my blind wrestling the thing falls gently off and growling disappears over the side of the wall.

We try once more to catch a fish and this time precipitate excitement for ourselves, for the next specimen is a handsome eel who manages to twist our line into such knots as would bewilder a Ulysses.

We twist and writhe all three and finally, weary and slimy, G and L cut out the eel and carry it triumphantly to the house. Here is one edible catch in any case – if we can figure out how to fix it.

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We can’t.

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Black nights, when the chores are done, we can’t resist the Sea. The sky too has a tremendous lure, for it is Gargantuan in the amount of it on display and in the size of its myriad stars. But little visible happens in the sky. Stars fall of course in great numbers, but save for the Fourth of July their paths are monotonously the same. So we glance for a few moments at the sky each night and then turn our attentions to our harbor.

It is some days before w[ ]urther [ ]earning for jacking [one whole page missing]

[ ] animal, long thin and translucent, with a pointed tail, skirt, two big eyes and above them a nest of tentacles. It was dark and shimmering, the tentacles waved [ ], the tail was convulsive. We rush it toward the house for further examination, carrying it in the net between us, watching it curiously and fearfully. We found a bucket and filled it. Then raised the net and dumped its contents noisily into the salt water it contained. There was a squeek and a flapping sound and the fish was out of sight for it had turned the water black. We knew then that we had caught a squid.

We changed the waters and prepared for observation. For a moment the squid looked brown, then we heard the squeek again. The water swirled up and over the bucket’s sides. We had ink once more, in the bucket and on the rug, but we no longer had a live squid. At least it was inert and stiff. It had changed from brown to a slippery lividness. We brought the light to it and found that in its white shiney skin was a multitude of brown spots which vibrated rhythmically together, changing their shape according to a pulsating time.

For hours these colored spots vibrated when it was obvious that there was no life in the squid.

We set out the pail of dark water for evaporation. The Island’s new temporary occupation was the manufacture of ink.

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[The following paragraph and a half are crossed out in the original but the author appears to have changed his mind and continued the narrative] There are few sights so startling as the first view of porpoises, to look out at the calm water and see suddenly rising from it a host of lumbering great black backs, sweeping forward as one long dark serpent, deliberate, slowly timed, but graciously rhythmic. There are few sights so continuously alluring.

One of us sees a group and the cry goes up. All work ceases as we rush to gaze at the black backs arching and disappearing then reappearing again, two, four, six, many, never a single one, most frequently a procession of twos. Occasionally a porpoise will rise completely from the water, flipping over backward or continuing straight on. But usually the movement is a steady lope, only an arc of the back showing as they curve along the water, passing sedately from east to west or less frequently from west to east, continuing visible for a time, then disappearing to reappear in some far distant spot on their route.

We hope for a closer sight of our porpoises, recalling Pliny’s tale of the dolphine that carried a child on his back for many voyages, and when the child was killed, became so disconsolate that it crawled up on shore and died. Milton Bradley told us of a porpoise that had carried out the latter part of this tale without the laudible motives of Pliny’s friend, and he told us how annoyed the professor had become and the great difficulty that they all had had removing the carcass from the beach.

Nonetheless we still hoped for a greater intimacy with them when one day a group of the sleek black animals arched through our channel we celebrated, considering that the porpoises had recognized us and our relation to them as happy inhabitants of the Sound.

We have ridden among them in our boat, seen them rising ahead and behind, but we give this up on advice from our lobsterers who tell of porpoises rising under a boat, capsizing it.

One warm weekend we had as guests an engaged couple, soon to be married. As the tide was out we were swimming from the rocks at the rear of the Island. G and L finished bathing and were sitting on the slope watching the couple splash about. Suddenly the fiance’ shouted to the fiancée, “Swim in as fast as you can!” With that he came plowing in, agony and terror on his face. She followed as rapidly as she could and together the agonized couple clambered up the rocks, scratching themselves on the barnacles in their haste. We meanwhile watched them in amazement for we knew no reason for their sudden burst of fright and as they rose up before us shaking and chattering we observed them in wonder.

“Sharks,” said the man finally, pointing out to the sea. “I could see their fins along the water.”

And there in the distance we saw the gentle rise and fall of a school of porpoises, dignified and aloof.

When the fiancée could gain control of her quivering self she berated and berated that her selfish friend had not paused to rescue her. He thought that having shouted was ample care, that she could swim better than he and that he could see that she was swimming behind. And the squabble didn’t end that day in our hearing. Nor could we please them with the handsome sight of porpoises the following morning.

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All this day our ears are greeted with the raindrop noise of water in upheaval. Every time we track it to the shore, we find the water boiling with schools of small fish, frisking and jumping and swimming near the shore. They are smaller than snapper blues but much larger than minnows. All around the Island they greet us with rippling and swirling.

We drag for them with our seine but catch none. They swim rapidly over or around or under our net. We corner them in inlets and are certain that there is no way out for them, but though we soak ourselves, we catch no fish.

We try for them with hook and line, but they ignore our minnows, crabs, snails, pork, winkle.

All day long wherever we go we hear them or se them, stirring up the water with their rapid gaiety.

Addison arrives and we hurry to point them out to him. “Herring,” he shouts and rushes out to look. “You can pickle the, or salt them, he calls over his shoulder.

Then he hastens into his boat and leaves without another word. A few hours later he reappears with his brother-in-law, Charlie. We’re going to catch some,” he says, confident that aided by so knowing a sportsman as Charlie, he’ll soon have all our larders filled with hearing.

They wear hip boots and they take their seine and we follow after, carrying a hopeful bucket. They reach a spot where the fish are thick. They separate on shore, holding the net high. It is longer than ours and deeper. Quietly they slide into the water and when they have passed the school, gently lower their net. Addison looks up and winks knowingly. Rapidly they rush the bowing net through the water. It looks like a coup, a great coup, but somehow unbelievably the minnows [sic] have managed to swim under or jump over or swim around. Not one remains in their net.

“Theyre slippery buggers,” says Charlie.

They try again, this time with more respect. They select a large school near an inlet and quietly work around it. They throw pebbles to chase the fish into shallower water. They drag carefully then quickly, but the rapid fish have again managed to elude them.

We feel better content for we had rather resented the implications of landlubber about our not having been able to snare the herring. In fact we now feel on a parity with these knowing ones of the waters for had we not caught as many as they and with as great finesse?

As time goes on, they grow disgruntled with each other and place blame on inconsequential missteps. They make a greater commotion and drag with jerks and leaps. They swear that they won’t stop until they’ve made a catch and after a while it looks as though we will have perpetual seiners on our shores. Then fortunately for their oath they manage to catch one little herring from the thousands about, and this they bear away triumphantly though with a bashfully ironic note in their triumph – two big fisherman and one little catch. Nor had their skill anything to do with possessing that one, for the fish, separated from the others had inadvertently jumped on shore and they had taken it with their hands.

But it is G who finally solves the problem. G who manages what the fisherman could not.

The herring boiling and swarming along the shore are a constant challenge to her. She continually hears them and sees them and she will not take the other defeats for final. We try dragging for them again, but they seem able to swim backward as quickly as forward. They can leap easily from the water and swim to any depth. They are uncannily wise and outwit us as easily as they outswim us.

Then G alone on the rocks has an idea. [Standing in the water] She takes the hand net and stalks the fish. She puts the net in the water near a school and waits. When they are well over the net she throws it high and through the air over her head fly scores of black and silvery fish. They strike the land and at once the ground is covered with leaping things, hopping and tumbling toward the water. They do not wait nor err in their direction but flop wildly toward the sea. G is among them catching them with her hands dumping her few in a bucket.

She tries again and once more creates a glorious rain of fish. She shouts aloud in her joy as the sky pours forth in slippery black. Again they strike the beach and scramble to join their mates, arcing and somersaulting directly back to the water.

Again and again she lands the herring, gazing at them happily, forgetting that she had wanted to catch to keep and pickle or salt, forgetting that she was answering a challenge and conquering where the fisherman had failed, feeling only the ecstatic pleasure of scooping the fish and throwing them high and watching their gleaming in the air and their gay accurate tumble to the sea.

L finds her there. laughing joyously, hair tumbled down creating a miracle of beauty from herring and a net.

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