In 1927 my grandparents, Leonard D. Weil and Grace Fisher Weil, bought a six-acre island in the Long Island Sound off of the coast of Stony Creek, Connecticut. The island was known as Two Tree Island, and Outer Island, as it was the furthest out in the sound. The purchase was a first anniversary present to each other – an extravagance that they knew would never be matched. They moved onto the island and lived out their lives on this beautiful isle. My grandfather had recently graduated from Yale Drama School and went on to be a life-long writer. My grandparents had four children; my mother, Susan, is the second eldest. My mother recently handed me a folder containing 215 pages of an island memoir her father had written, sporadically and in various formats, from 1927 – 1932. SEA LIFE AND LOVES is a free-standing piece that was tucked into the folder. I believe it was written in 1927 and 1928. One character that may need explaining is Addison. He was a lobsterman who had spent much of his boyhood helping the previous owner of the island, Professor Verrell of Yale University. Addison took my grandparents under his wing, showing them the workings of island living and becoming a dear friend for life.
By Leonard Dankmar Weil
Leonard shouts, “Come here. Quick!”
Grace 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 Grace.
“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 puts his arm around Grace’s shoulder and speaks of the octopuses in the aquarium at Naples and of what an octopus aroused in a lady in Mare Nostrum. Grace 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 them warmly to each other as they watch its dilations, entranced. They need no further bidding. No word need be spoken. They are together in warm thought and warm hope.
But suddenly they hear words shouted and they jump apart, their bubble rudely burst by an outer thrust. They 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 their last intimacy with jellyfish, though several days pass before they see another. Leonard’s 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 the thousands of jellyfish which arrive one day polka-dotting the green sea with orange brown, making swimming painfully impossible, strewing the shore with brown gelatin dishes of no pleasing stench, forcing him to load them into buckets and [ *] to toss them over the breakwater, stinging himself and wearing him into a state of jaded weariness. No languorous movements of theirs can arouse him again.
To be sure they do not trouble them long. Those that do not remain to grace the beach drift off the following day to pester bathers farther down the Sound, and such a Cooks tour of them, they are told, curses their water on only 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 their island, Leonard and Grace come upon a pool with a jellyfish locked in by the receding tide. They 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 they 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 waves in 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 Leonard and Grace see crabs with tiny shells like snails. They notice snails here too crawling peacefully along the surface of the jellyfish. 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.
Then little green rock crabs come, 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 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 Leonard and Grace have accustomed themselves to the scale of what they are observing, for this two-inch fellow appears a giant. He is a ferocious dragon terrifying those observers who have shrunk to a sympathetic communion with the little scavengers. But Leonard and Grace do not chose to interfere with this dreadnought in battle array. A war is expected 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 and 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.
Leonard and Grace leave them. When they return half a day later only a few shreds of jelly fish remain, each commandeered by a hungry crab.
Leonard and Grace stand for a time talking to Addison and watching the water beside the pier. “I guess I’ll have to drag,” says Addison, preparing to leave. Schools of minnows swim by.
“Look at them,” says Captain Addison. “No shortage of them out this way.”
Suddenly there is 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 they do.
Leonard is bid to take the bamboo which holds one end and to march along the beach holding it low; Addison sloshes into the water in his hip boots, dragging his bamboo below the surface. They 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. Leonard feels like shouting thanks for his success to the gods in mythical South Sea Island fashion. They have achieved a conquest, a minor harvest, but a harvest just the same.
Grace is called to bring a pail and the bait is transferred eagerly to it.
“We’d better haul it again,” says Ad. He can’t resist it though there are more minnows than they 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. Its filaments are plainly to be seen coursing with rainbow light.
“They don’t sting,” Addison advises as he splashes the cargo of jellies into the Sound. At once they assume invisibility except for a pair of those bulbs whose veins can be seen flowing with rainbows.
“Clean off the net now so it won’t rot,” and they dance it up and down in the Sound splashing it with water. “Hang it up to dry,” and they do, along the fence beside the bathhouse.
“Now I’ll rig you up a line,” says the master, and he carefully ties lines to sinker and bobs and hooks. He fishes too a bit, showing how to tell delectable little snapper blues from scaly, though edible, little conners.
“Enough for a meal,” says Addison as he finally makes up his mind to desert the fishing. He leaves them his catch to supplement their own. Of his wife he says, “She’ll be mad 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 Stony 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 Stony 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 Leonard and Grace are not at their Two Tree Island long before they are advised, nay importuned, about them. They purchase a noisy can of the distorted creatures, hoping to exchange each for a weighty blackfish. But something goes wrong with the 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 their lines yet hardly any fiddlers remain there.
As time progresses Leonard and Grace grow bold in their Island activities. Experimentation sets in. They try all segments of the rock ledge shore searching out the coy fish; away from the mentor Addison’s watchful eye, they examine the Island for bait.
They had seen crabs in the little pools, not fiddlers to be sure, but better balanced crabs whose right claws are no larger than their left. There are green ones and red ones and tough little black ones. Leonard and Grace raise rocks within the pools and grab. Their eyes become accustomed to the amazing camouflage coloration. Grace becomes the spotter and Leonard the catcher. Soon they find more pleasure and excitement in the crab search than in its ultimate purpose: fishing. They decide that they are much like most of the capitalists in this acquisitive phase of America’s history, for they are more interested in the quest of accumulation than in the transfer into fish of their hoardings.
But when they find that the crabs of their Island are as useful in fish catching as fiddlers and are more happy to achieve, they feel that they are more true islanders, that they have advanced several days in their islandization. And gradually the self-sustaining ideal commences to form.
They feel they will be better able to get along if storms isolate them from the shore. If Addison, their umbilicus, is blocked from bringing them supplies from the motherland, they will be that much less likely to starve.
Leonard and Grace have never been ones to deny their profound interest in procreation. Modes of multiplication never bring them vexation; the rule of two, whereas it may perplex them, is always pleasing to their eyes; so that when one day in their search for bait they discover a fine specimen of crab tearing along a pool bottom with his inamorata in his arms, they do not rudely throw the two in the milkbottle jail to be used for catching blackfish.
The 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. Grace and Leonard leave them there for a time as, identifying themselves with the objects of their examination, they do not wish to distress them too rudely. But they find themselves searching for other crabs only half-heartedly and soon science triumphs over gentle chivalry. They return to the coupled pair.
They discover that the mating 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? They learn that the male is costumed like a medieval gent with a triangular flap in the front of his trousers. And they ascertain too that crabs are not monogamous, for there happens to be another soft and yielding lady in the pool and when the 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.
Their next lesson is that crab procreation is not only about galloping around rock-filled pools. A day later they uncover a roe crab. They 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.
Leonard and Grace tell Addison about their find, and he obliges with the recitation of a parallel case in the lobster world. A few days later he brings for their 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.
Leonard and Grace walk into the black night and see pinpoints of stars and a shawl of massed star clusters. The air is cool and tonic. They walk down the alley of the black shapes of the apple trees and reach the grey road of dock. The sea whispers a background for the crickets’ sharper song. Fireflies follow them 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 Leonard and Grace discover the fireflies’ maritime counterparts. They 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. They can’t resist this lure and vault to the sand, there to splay their fingers in the cool ripples. The little lights rest against their hands, gently illuminating.
Leonard picks up a handful of sand and flings it into the quiet water. For a moment the sea is alive with specks probed to light the sand. They toss sand, then stones, then water into the Sound. The response does not fail: garlands, arcs, streams of tiny lights, minute, light the replica of the galaxies in the Heavens.
They dare not resist the temptation any longer. They hurry out of their clothes and, nude, march into the black sea. Each step is a luminous marvel; each kick is an electric charm. They go farther into the water ignoring as best they can the shock of the cold against their tenderer portions, wondering whether the beauty they are seeking is worth the chill of their middles and chests. Doggedly they persevere, frozen marches to glory.
Then Grace plunges and her body is a torch. Leonard guiltily plunges second and their torches parallel. It is worth blue cold and more. As Leonard swims a few, too rapid, strokes, each arm thrust is a pyrotechnic display. He becomes godlike as every motion sets forth a burning stream. He watches Grace’s floating body, a kindled beauty in the lights.
Leonard and Grace are silver fish, one thrashing and boystrous; one tranquil and radiant. They are ubermenshen, transfigured by a glory in phosphorous – godlike creatures so long as they dare. Then they hurry to the shore, gleaming, bejeweled. As they rise from the sea, stars cling to them; they 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. Leonard and Grace amble down the black path, avoiding the trees as best they can. They have come to see the Sound again in phosphorescent splendor. Out on the pier they look at a greater marvel than they 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 phosphorescence, a school of minnows has come, each minnow swimming jerkily, passionately, its every movement lighting up a profusion of light-giving minutiae. Everywhere within the harbor, the schools mill, and throughout, the water is glowing. The moons are the small radiant bulblike jellies they had found in their net. As they climb down closer to the shore they can see the glowing streams of prismatic light.
Suddenly as they 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. Eels are rising from the bottom, igniting circles among the minnows, their prey, raising the water sounds into violent swishes.
Again they cannot resist the spell. Clothes are stripped off and they plunge among them, radiant minnows pinging against their skin. Sight sound and touch are exalted. Leonard and Grace are gigantic signs in a great white way with eels as neon lights and jellies as street lamps. They are godlike once more in a world of minor glowing creatures; milling through the heaven of darting lights.
They are jeweled, celestial, glowing and immortal.
In the morning Leonard goes down to the shore to see if he can determine the cause of the lights. Can it 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.
Leonard 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 heaven.
Barnacles are renowned as quiet steadfast inert creatures, and so when Leonard and Grace see them in flocks and sheets along their rock ledges, they pay little attention to them. Their interest in sea life is beguiled by the flashier and the more fleshy denizens of their shore. For example, they develop a great fondness for periwinkles. Addison has given them several to use for bait. They admire their graceful shells and are pleased when they quickly learn to dissect them for fishing purposes. When some new winkles decide to crawl up the beach they welcome them, and their pride and interest in them knows no bounds when one day Leonard 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 that winkles are hermaphroditic?)
Thus in their quest as emotional naturalists Leonard and Grace tend to ignore the tiny shellfish that they look upon as drab. Any day at low tide they can see thousands and thousands of the inert creatures seeming more rocklike than the ledges themselves. As the new islanders grow more nautical they recognize that they have been a little in error about these seemingly sedentary creatures because of their facility in attaching themselves to their newly arrived boat bottom. But even so Leonard and Grace can not believe that their own tenants have been so flighty as to leave shore.
One day as they are sitting fishing on their rocks, they discover that barnacles are not so quiet as they reckoned. In fact as they sit beside them they 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. Leonard and Grace can hear the whispering noises, the gossips, but it is not until the following spring that they discover what they could have been conversing about.
When Leonard and Grace return to their Island the following spring, they perceive that their rocks are covered, deluged, with millions of new baby barnacles. Some old barnacle buck was roving and active. They had cause for gossip.
Grace always 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.
Addison’s father, Old Bradley, one day insists that Leonard and Grace are not taking full advantage of the Island when they do not eat its steamers. So with shovel and rake, they go to the grounds which he indicates.
There, through minute drenchings Leonard becomes acquainted with clams’ abilities and accuracy with their juice. Leonard resents their le`se majeste´ but resolves to make the most of it. Leonard and Grace tramp heavily in the goo watching for guysers, ready to pounce if they’re plastered in the eye. When the telltale spout appears leaving a tiny hole in the mud as a marker, they dig with fury, using shovel and rake and fingernails, as the clam burrows lower and lower, racing away from their reach. They must capture the vile culprit. Non sputare on our shores.
A quart of steamers are an hour’s reward, along with a bath of black mud and a backache. But they 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 the island’s slopes and oysters in the pools, so if they are marooned on a month that contains the letter “R” they can live on great delicacies unless the star fish and oyster borers have robbed them of their fare.
For star fish, the dear star fish, Leonard and Grace learn, are a menace to big business with bounties on their heads. They had been delighted when they discovered starfish clinging nonchalantly to their rocks. They had watched them pleasurably, intently, as they moved slothfully along, with the minute glassy feelers which covered their undersides. To hear that they engulf oysters and drain them, displeases them but they can not bring themselves to cause their destruction. The starfish teach Leonard and Grace 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, Leonard and Grace consider them little Davids and Leonard maintains his liberal attitude.
They 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. Leonard and Grace call the oyster borers their enemies on their shores, though starfish please them, and their only conclusion is that it is best to eat oysters before the borers do.
The mere presence of oysters does not make eating them easy. One of Leonard’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 [ *]bidity for filling the oyster with shell specks. Many oysters are destroyed, uneaten, before Leonard asks Addison for the knack of opening the canny fish. Addison demonstrates by opening and eating a large one. When Leonard tries inserting the knife as Addison did, the only result is a cut finger. The next time Addison grudgingly shows more slowly so Leonard 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. Leonard and Grace 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. Leonard and Grace 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 it is a great boon to the boat launchers. Each year there are perigee tides which magnificently exceed the normal perigees. On such days Leonard and Grace make long examination of their shore.
They discover boulders and passageways and queer types of seaweed which normally are hidden by the water of the Sound. They learn where swimming would be safe at high tide and where the banks are too steep and slippery for crawling out of the sea.
To the north the island grades off into mud and ooze; to the west the rocks continue their slope; to the south they 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 yards to the east is a mass of rocks slightly visible at high tide – the Outer Thimble; when the tide is far out these rocks 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 a tide-out exploration Leonard comes upon a tiny horsechestnutlike creature which he recognizes at once and carries with excitement to Grace. 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, and as emotionally reminiscential as that orange-sailed boat of our first day there. It is an oursin, an urchin, a round and spiny echinus.
In the old days in the South of France Leonard and Grace had often seen lads with long cleft bamboos spearing in the water for these brown prickly creatures. One day they followed their example and brought home a basket full of the spherical mysteries. They brought them to their 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 their 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 gutted creature to them, its spines weaving and wandering spindles. They 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 they took their prizes home and resolved to serve them as appetizers with their next meal. They clipped off lids and emptied out pebbles and scooped out the cock’s comb and took them to their dining room. There they each tasted one, speaking gaily of Praniers chez nous, and no food being too great a delicacy. Then Leonard and Grace both put down their delicacies and spoke affectionately of old trusty victuals like spaghetti and ham and eggs. They returned to the kitchen for their standbys and discovered to their utter amazement that the shells of their erstwhile appetizers were all on parade. They had marched off the table and were propelling their spiny way along the kitchen floor.
So it is that with such a glowing memory Leonard and Grace greet with delight their delegate from the Mediterranean. They let it twirl its spines along their hands, using their palms as its compatriots had used the kitchen floor. Then with a ceremony they place it back among the rocks on their Eastern shore. Had they even craved a taste of its cock’s comb they nevertheless would have done the same. Leonard and Grace bid it a fond goodbye, urged it to multiply, and go about their business.
Addison says, “If you go out at night just to look at the water, why don’t you try some fishing?”
Leonard and Grace ask if there is a chance of catching any.
“Sure,” he says, “Jack ‘em. With a searchlight.”
“Isn’t that against the law?” Leonard asks.
“Not in salt water,” says Ad. “You can’t do it in a lake but here it’s all right.”
So they prepare and that night at dusk they set about to catch the weakfish which Addison commends.
Grace shines; Leonard holds; Leonard shines; Grace holds. Soon there is action from the sea bottom. A nibble. Lost bait. Then another. Then suddenly there is more than a nibble. Leonard excitedly hoists a crab to the surface of the water, but to his dazed sorrow it falls off. Grace tries this time and manages to 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 the line. They 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. They 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 Leonard hoists to the surface what looks like a kite.
They bring it up and stare. Its 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 they 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, a very harassed countenance grafted to the queer fish. They look with troubled amusement at the visitor and expect him at any moment to tell them that he will do their bidding but that they should not ask to be more than Popes or Kings.
Leonard and Grace assay their glowering visitor and decide that there would be nothing edible on him even if they could bring themselves to this cannibalism. So they unhook him with difficulty, finding that his teeth are better than most old men’s, and willingly launch him back into the Sound.
Then they catch a fish. Much to their amazement they 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. They do not fancy this thing at all, gnarled and gaping in the half light. Grace tries to remove the hook but it is no easy task and she is called upon to foreswear her principles by asking Leonard to do the unhooking. Leonard steps on it to hold it secure for the removal and as Leonard 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. Leonard leans over to pick up the prize but at the same time the fish leans up and catches Leonard’s sweater. There it stays, clamped with strong teeth and jaws. Leonard struggles but there is no unloosening it. Perhaps it will always be there, a spine in the sweater. But when Leonard gives up the blind wrestling, the thing falls gently off and growling, disappears into the water.
They try once more to catch a fish and this time precipitates excitement, for the next specimen is a handsome eel who manages to twist the line into such knots as would bewilder a Ulysses.
Leonard, Grace, and the eel twist and writhe all three, and finally, weary and slimy, Leonard and Grace cut out the eel and carry it triumphantly to the house. Here is one edible catch in any case – if they can figure out how to fix it.
One day Leonard and Grace catch a new creature in their nets. This animal, long thin and translucent, has a pointed tail, skirt, two big eyes and above them, a nest of tentacles. It is dark and shimmering; the tentacles wave agilely; the tail is convulsive. They rush it toward the house for further examination, carrying it in the net between them, watching it curiously and fearfully. They find a bucket and fill it. Then raise the net and dump its contents noisily into the salt water. There is a squeak and a flapping sound and the fish is out of sight for it had turned the water black. They know then that they have caught a squid.
They change the waters and prepare for observation. For a moment the squid looks brown. Then they hear the squeak again. The water swirls up and over the bucket’s sides. They have ink once more, in the bucket and on the rug, but they no longer have a live squid. At least it appears inert and stiff. In an instant it had changed from brown to a slippery pale lividness. They bring the light to it and find that in its white shiny skin is a multitude of brown spots which vibrate rhythmically together, changing their shape according to a pulsating time.
For hours these colored spots vibrate even when it is obvious that there is no life in the squid.
They set out the pail of dark water for evaporation. The Island’s new temporary occupation is the manufacture of ink.
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.
Someone sees a group of porpoises and the cry goes up. All work ceases as they 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.
Leonard and Grace hope for a closer sight of their porpoises, recalling Pliny’s tale of the dolphin 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. Addison’s brother, Milton, told them of a porpoise that had carried out the latter part of this tale on Outer Island, without the laudable motives of Pliny’s friend. He told them how annoyed the professor had become and the great difficulty that they all had had removing the carcass from the beach.
Nonetheless Leonard and Grace still hoped for a greater intimacy with them and when one day a group of the sleek black animals arched through their channel they celebrated, considering that the porpoises had recognized Leonard and Grace and their relation to each other as happy inhabitants of the Sound.
Leonard and Grace had ridden among them in their boat, seeing them rising ahead and behind, but they gave this up on advice from their lobsterers who tell of porpoises rising under a boat, capsizing it.
One warm weekend Leonard and Grace had as guests an engaged couple, soon to be married. As the tide was out they were swimming from the rocks at the rear of the Island. Leonard and Grace finished bathing and were sitting on the slope watching the couple splash about. Suddenly the fiancé 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. Leonard and Grace meanwhile watched them in amazement for they knew no reason for their sudden burst of fright. As the couple rose up before them, shaking and chattering, they observed them in wonder.
“Sharks,” said the man finally, breathlessly, pointing out to the sea. “I could see their fins along the water.”
And there in the distance is the gentle rise and fall of a school of porpoises, dignified and aloof.
When the fiancée gained 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 Leonard and Grace please them with the handsome sight of porpoises the following morning.
All this day Leonard and Grace are greeted with the raindrop noise of water in upheaval. Every time they track it to the shore, they 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 Leonard and Grace are greeted with rippling and swirling.
Leonard and Grace drag for them with their seine but catch none. The fish swim rapidly over or around or under the net. Leonard and Grace corner them in inlets and are certain that there is no way out for them, but though Leonard and Grace soak themselves, they catch no fish.
They try for them with hook and line, but the fish ignore minnows, crabs, snails, pork, and winkle.
All day long wherever they go they hear them or see them, stirring up the water with their rapid gaiety.
Addison arrives and Grace hurries to point them out to him. “Herring,” he shouts and rushes out to look closer. “You can pickle them, 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 herring.
They wear hip boots and they take their seine. Leonard and Grace follow after, carrying a hopeful bucket. They all reach a spot where the fish are thick. Charlie and Addison separate on shore, holding the net high. It is longer and deeper than Leonard and Grace’s. Quietly the fishermen 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 herring manage to swim under or jump over or swim around. Not one remains in their net.
“They’re 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.
Leonard and Grace feel better content for they had rather resented the implications of landlubber about their not having been able to snare the herring. In fact they now feel on a parity with these knowing ones of the waters for had they not caught as many as the fishermen and with as great finesse?
As time goes on, Addison and Charlie 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 there will be perpetual seiners on the shores of the Island. 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 Grace who finally solves the problem. Grace 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. She and Leonard try dragging for them again, but the fish 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 as easily as they outswim.
Then Grace alone on the rocks has an idea. Standing in the water she takes the handnet 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. Grace 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.
Leonard finds her there, laughing joyously, hair tumbled down, creating a miracle of beauty from herring and a net.