Nellie & Mary passes the tip of Long Point, the end of a spiral of sand that turns and turns in on itself. Below the high tide mark its sand banks stand like yellowed sandstone. Like the walls of an eroded pyramid, they fight the ages; withstand erosion; and make nonsense of the angle of repose. A raw, living edge raked by strong currents.
A few miles away on the back side of the Cape substantial cliffs and bluffs tower over a hundred feet above the water. These bluffs erode three feet a year. Year in, year out, acres of land melt away like so much ice cream left out in the sun. This wispy tip of wet sand holds its position. Old timers talk of land they remember on the backside the way an amputee speaks of a phantom limb. Lost to erosion long ago. A place that’s now perhaps a half a mile from shore. Long Point maintains itself like the curl of smoke off a cigarette hanging in still air.
The Highlands lay ahead and to port as they gradually close on the Beach Point shore. A low grassy dune marks its edge. Backed at a distance by the muddy, maroon waters of East Harbor. The great dunes rise behind. Aglow with a golden light, they crest like breakers. Ocean waves transubstantiated into waves of sand that roll down out of the Northeast, the direction of storms.
At this distance the dunes stand out more by their glow than their height. To the east of the offshore trap these sand-hills end at the foot of a high, dark moorland. This land-mass sags under a fine pelt of dusty-green vegetation. Skimmed off the mountains of Maine and New Hampshire, dumped by a glacier these sands, gravels, and fine-milled clays form the backbone of Cape Cod.
A softly undulating landscape, rolling and soft-edged. Covered, not with grass or trees, but a short nap of Bearberry. A blanket of tiny waxy-leaves and bright-red berries. Low spots cradle Bayberry and Beach Plum out of the wind. Dwarf Scrub Oak and Beech fill more protected hollows. Twisted, gnarly branches tower over everything a dozen feet. Branches draped with lichens, knotted with hard, black galls.
A grand vault of sky envelopes everything in a luminous intensity, subtly nuanced and ever-changing. Unlike some western desert with distant mountains hovering above the horizon this is an intimate landscape. Nothing natural rises over a hundred-and-fifty feet. Pilgrim Monument’s not much taller; but there’s a grandeur here out of all proportion.
Our sense of scale is disturbed. Beneath a high sky, or lost in mists and fogs, the ever changing light is more substantial than the landscape it colors. There’s a modesty, even meanness, to this place of low scrub hills.
The Pilgrim Monument dominates every view. Theodore Roosevelt laid its corner stone. At its inauguration William Howard Taft vied his bulk with its height. A Sienese Campanile set on a sand-mount thirty miles off the New England coast. No more remarkable than a congregation of English dissenters, living in Holland, setting off for Virginia should end up under the lee of this curl of sand.
The Monument is visible from far out at sea when silhouetted against the light, as if to ensure that no misfits should ever fail to find this sheltering arm. At other times, lost in haze, it slowly materializes from the sea horizon. Two-hundred-and-fifty feet of Stonington granite easily dissolved by a trick of the light. Flesh and blood, barges and cranes, dragged Maine to these southern New England waters, depositing its minerals in strict verticality atop a flattened hummock of sand and gravel in this most horizontal of worlds.
A new moon hangs its slivered crescent in the West almost lost in the glare of the setting sun. Joe C has timed their arrival for low-water.
Approaching the trap from the North, Nellie & Mary circles once. All eyes read a calligraphy of lines and mesh and poles. The crew puzzles over what lays in store, gauging work to be done. Close up, on a falling tide, the piles reach well over their heads supported by an array of guy-lines crisscrossed in front of them. Circling a second time they cannot help but feel its disorienting power.
Joe C cuts the throttle. “Gohd Damn Mack’rel Sha’hk!” he growls, too loud over the diminishing slap of chop against their bow. The boat slows into silence. The last drone of the engine echoes off torn and ragged netting.
Just a few days ago they cut down a carcass from the side of the Heart. A Great White had entered the net by a short-cut of her own devising; intent on the panicky fish inside. Her bulk and the velocity of her charge took her body a dozen feet through the net. Not stopping until her pectorals and dorsal fin caught fast. Each torn thread and popped knot took its pounds of test to break, thwarting two tons of intent hurtling in at twenty-five knots.
Her will had never been interrupted in decades spent prowling the ocean. She snapped and charged again and again twisting and rolling. Unable to imagine how profoundly things had changed. She managed to snatch a hundred pounds of mackerel in a single bite. Their blood, mixed with her own, smeared her jaws and flanks. Her teeth, the size of a child’s hand, caught and snagged in the net. Some pulled away, bloody smears left on their neighbors arrayed three rows deep. Hanging overnight, the twine sawed through her armored skin, leaving great arcs of red-rimmed cuts in her flesh.
Must have struck at high tide. When they arrived she hung completely above water. Only the lower crescent of her tail sent a sharp little wake running down the tide. Her stiff corpse did not flex; unaffected by wavelets tapping against her fin. Slowly, ponderously, she swung to the waves produced by their wake. All aggressive agency lost.
Her black eye had exhibited life by swallowing all light. A bottomless hole punctuating the great slab of her head. It was now opaque with a greasy gleam. Its nictating membrane half-occluding a cornea clouded in death.
Antone found a morbid rhyme frozen in this deaths-head. Remembering a gruesome, hand-carved crucifix he had known as a child. The village church’s sanctuary wrapped in gloom. Votive candles flickering to illuminate, animate, a figure writhing above the altar. In this dusk he recognizes the same twisted agony, bloody wounds. The crucifix wore a crown of thorns. Spiky and out of scale, tipped in blood-red paint, they made a strange inversion to these teeth before him. In this image he recognized hunger. Never to be satisfied.
Any consideration of redemption was lost on him. As was the ragged aggression this shark embodied. Shark and savior fell into a rough equivalence. A shared misery of bloodshed and loss.
Chopping away at her fins the crew had hacked at the torn net. Her carcass dropped into the sea in stages. No one mourned. There was no empty tomb….
She was abandoned to drift away under a halo of gulls: Harpies or angels, flapping wings and cutting cries. Along with a widening circle of unseen scavengers below, they sought to simply wrest a bit of sustenance from her squandered treasure. Asking for nothing more than a chance to persevere.