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by C. Charman
Neoprene which has been put away wet and dried in the back of a car has a very particular smell. For me, it is the smell of my early adolescence. It is a bit of rubber, a bit of salt, and perhaps a touch of mildew, mixed with a hint of diesel fumes from my dad's old GM van. Dad pulled out the two back seats and replaced them with a high wooden platform, topped with a thin foam rubber mattress at the height of the windows. Always a good Boy Scout, Dad stashed all manner of strange and useful kit under the platform; socket wrenches, jack stand, crow bar, dive gear, and of course our wetsuits.
One of our favorite places to go was a little cove a bit north of Año Nuevo. We'd park the van and dig out our wetsuits. Hiding ourselves from the passing traffic on Highway One, we'd scrunch, pull, tug and yank them on up to our waists. We'd put on wetsuit booties, gather up our fins, masks, snorkels, mesh bags and dive knives, and start the long trudge through the dunes and out to the sea.
Within a few yards of the highway, the dirt and gravel gave way to a pebbly, tan sand. Ice plant grew on either side of the narrow, then thorny brush and thin green grasses, all ruffled by the wind coming from the Pacific. In summer, the marine layer would push wet, cold fog up against the coast like a sopping blanket. Even when the surfers were in springsuits, the water was cold enough to make your feet numb in minutes.
We'd walk in about three-quarters of a mile to start, out through the tall dunes. Where the dunes opened up to the ocean, we'd occasionally run into a fisherman or two casting their lines into the surf for sunfish and perch. The path led back up the dunes, to a high bluff where we'd have to climb down to the cove. At the base of the cliff, we would finish gearing up and back into the ocean in our fins. We'd spend the next several hours bobbing around in the water, attempting to pry those wily but tasty mollusks away from the rocky bottom. Invariably, we would fail, and walk away with empty mesh bags.
After one fruitless trip, exhausted, cold, and wet, we were coming back up over the bluff when Dad stopped and put down his gear.
"Hmm," he said, "That's odd. That looks like bone."
Entwined in the roots, the wind had revealed a long, red-orange bone. Dad bent down and brushed away a little more sand, revealing the bone's end.
"Yep, that's a human femur," he said, straightening up. "We're going to need to call the police when we get back."
"Should we take it with us?" I asked, hoping that he'd say yes.
"No, let's not disturb anything. We'll let the cops sort it out."
The hike back went quickly. I usually complained about walking in the soft sand, wet, cold, and without a single abalone to show for our efforts, but not that day. We got back to the van and Dad retrieved his keys from the hide-a-key under the rear bumper. We headed down the coast to the nearest payphone, all the way back in Davenport.
I sat in the front seat of the van and played around with Dad's mascot, a Mr. T action figure Dad kept hanging on a cord on the dashboard, while he and the policeman stood next to the policeman's patrol car and talked. While they talked, the officer took a few notes on a clipboard sitting on the hood of his car with one hand, while he idly unsnapped and snapped the flap holding his service revolver in its holster.
Dad shook hands with the cop and headed back towards the van. I heard the officer say "Thanks for calling us, doc. Like you said, better safe than sorry."
Dad looked a little bemused. I asked him, "So what? What did the cop say?"
"Apparently, that was Mr. Sozinho."
"Portuguese fisherman. His family got permission to bury him there, about forty years ago," Dad said. He turned the key to turn on the van's glow plugs, then fired up the diesel. We sat there for a few minutes as the engine warmed up. "He said they get called out every couple of years, whenever the winter storms have been bad. Wind blows off enough sand for the bones to surface."
The next weekend I was at Dad's, we headed back up the coast to our favorite dive spot. This time we didn't take our dive gear. Dad had dug a couple of shovels out of his garage, and we hiked out with those on our shoulders.
Up on the bluff we stopped, and Dad looked around a bit until he found Mr. Sozinho again. A few feet up there was a patch of dune grass and wild buckwheat. We carefully cut away a section of the plants and put them aside, and started digging in the loose sand of the dune.
For the next hour and a half, the only sounds were the surf, the wind, and our shovels. When Dad thought the hole was deep enough, he said, "Okay, that's enough digging. Let's go get Mr. Sozinho."
Dad assessed the bones we could see. "Okay, that's his left leg there. His feet should be towards the beach and his head should be towards the path." We cleared away the sand, starting at the bones we could see, like archeologists, on our hands and knees, exposing Mr. Sozinho's weathered bones. As we found them, Dad would name the bones; femur, tibia, fibula, a few metatarsals, "Hmm, looks like he had arthritis. That must have hurt. We're definitely missing some though." Moving up, pelvis, vertebrae, ribs, radius, ulna, humerus. Finally to the mandible and skull, all completely defleshed, bare, without a recognizable personhood, but still and utterly what is at the core of all of us.
Once we were satisfied that we'd found all there was to find, we arranged Mr. Sozinho in his new home. Dad put his skull in last, empty eye sockets facing out over the sea. "There, that ought to do it, for a few more decades at least."
Again, all was quiet, except for the wind, the sea, and our shovels. Once the hole was filled, we did our best to replace the plants . With luck the sand would be anchored, and Mr. Sozinho might get a longer slumber this time before curious hikers or industrious beachcombers disturbed him again.
Dad and I went out to the cove at least once, sometimes twice a month for the next three years. When the mood struck us, we stopped and spent a few silent minutes together with Mr. Sozinho, out on his bluff. And even though we never in all that time managed to catch any abalone, I didn't complain.
C. Charman was never really fishing for abalone, anyway