Rick Boyer: Billingsgate Shoal

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Billingsgate Shoal

Rick Boyer


Call me Doc.

I'm Charles Adams, a doctor who lives with his wife, Mary, and two almost-grown sons in Concord, Massachusetts. I'm an oral surgeon, a cross between a doctor and a dentist, who performs tooth extractions and general and cosmetic surgery of the lower face and jaw.

My most interesting recent operation was quick, spontaneous, and without benefit of surgeon's tools or anesthetic. I cut a human head in two, right down the middle. Deliberately. The operation was a success because the patient died.

Listen: I didn't ask for any of it. If anyone had told me that all the pain and killing would begin with my sneaking a look at a stranded fishing boat I would have called them nuts. It sure looked innocent enough. It was just sitting out there on the sand flats. It looked like a Winslow Homer watercolor…


Two and a half miles directly offshore from our cottage in Eastham, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, lies Billingsgate Shoal. It appears on nautical charts in a color between that of either land or sea. This is because Billingsgate is a sunken island and is visible only briefly, in all its soggy splendor, twice a day at tide's farthest ebb.

The body of water that surrounds the island in this corner of Cape Cod Bay is called Billingsgate Sound, and stretches around the sunken island from Eastham on the south to the entrance of Wellfleet Harbor on the north. The sound is a bank rich in mollusks, especially the large marine clam called quahog, which is excellent in chowder, and the small, delicate, and tasty bay scallop (not to be confused with its larger cousin and sea scallop). Besides the proper conditions to promote the growth of these mollusks, Billingsgate Sound also has a large number of spider crabs, which dine almost exclusively on starfish. Since the starfish is the primary predator of the mollusks, one can see, by following the steps of this rude syllogism, that there must be fewer starfish here and (ergo) more mollusks. This is so.

At high water the small bay trawlers, dozens of them, can be seen in the distance, crawling across the water hauling their big metal chain-link drags on the ocean floor behind them. Sometimes the wind shifts, bringing with it the faint growl and whine of their diesels. Another constant sound is the hoot of the groaner buoy at the foot of Billingsgate. It goes hoooo-ooooot! every fifteen seconds, round the clock, and is saying keep away…

To the south, on the horizon in a direct line between our cottage and the village of West Brewster, lies the wreck of the James Longstreet. It was wrecked there deliberately by the United States government. This old Liberty Ship from the Second World War was towed in and sunk in the shallow water to be used as a target for the navy and air force. Planes dive at it, pelting the ancient concrete hulk with cannon and rocket fire. It is said that the Longstreet is "a bunch of holes held together by their rims." It's an apt description. The derelict ship sits immobile, ruined, on the horizon.

Our cottage is situated on a bluff overlooking Billingsgate Sound. At low tide it is a place of frightening vastness, haunting noises, and optical tricks. No trees. Low sand hills. Miles and miles of marsh grass and water weed. And most desolate of all are the endless sand flats that grow for miles in the slow wake of the receding tides. These are absolutely flat and barren. People walk out on these vast stretches of damp sand. Some carry odd-shaped bent garden forks-these to dig out the quahogs, razor clams, and bay scallops. You could live off these flats with no problem whatsoever; the only thing not provided is the chilled chablis.

But most of the people aren't diggers-they're beachcombers, people on vacation who wander out to see what there is to find. From a mile away they look like moving specks. Tall, dark, slow-moving lines are adults. Short specks that dawdle, or run on winking legs, are children. Sometimes you can see low specks that travel with incredible speed, and leap into the air. The faint barking tells you they are dogs. Occasionally the wind will bring the sound of laughter, or a mother calling a child, from miles away. And it is weird, even unsettling, to hear the voices and laughter clearly, coming from these tiny dots that move slowly to and fro on the shimmering sand far, far away.

It is quiet when the tide is out. Gone is the crump and hiss of breaking waves. The gulls don't shriek overhead; they are out on the flats, waddling around officiously pausing, pecking, squabbling, and gobbling up the tiny hermit crabs-no bigger than garden spiders-that scamper in the shallow tide pools.

"Looming" is what Melville called it, an optical phenomenon caused by thermal inversions in the atmosphere. These thermal inversions have the effect of layering the air, and these layers, like the elements of a lens, cause light waves to bend, allowing objects beyond the horizon to seem to be visible. The object floats high over the horizon upside down and shimmers ghostlike in the dancing air currents. It happens a lot in our corner of the bay.

The far-off sounds, the wrecked ship, the ghostly and desolate flats-all of these add to the general feeling of the place. And if a vacation is a change, then Sunken Meadow Beach overlooking Billingsgate Sound is a vacation indeed from the pine forests, hills, and thick meadows of Concord.

One morning in late summer I got up a bit too early. Three hours too early. It was getting to be a habit. I couldn't sleep. Moe Abramson, my colleague, said it was only a midlife reshuffling of values and not to worry. He gave me pills to help my depression and insomnia. Mary said it was because I'm an idealist and dreamer, and wanted everything to be perfect. She gave me loving and scolding to help my depression and insomnia.

Gee, I had lots of help.

It wasn't working.

Every night for three weeks I had risen between three and four A.M. Not rested. I had awakened exhausted and irritable. The month-long vacation was supposed to cure all this.

It didn't. It seemed to intensify it. Mary, my short-suffering wife, wasn't about to put up with much more of my Weltschmerz.

"Shape up or take a hike, pal," was her comment.

Who could blame her?

So there I was at five A.M., out on the deck of our cottage gazing off over Cape Cod Bay. The tide was out; I was looking mostly at the immense expanse of tidal flats. It was so early all things were dim and blurry. Most of what I looked at was full of the fuzzy little specks of nighttime vision. I was I still half asleep. or was I asleep-fina1ly-and dreaming this? No. I was awake. I'd almost forgotten what sleep felt like. I sat and propped my feet up on the railing and stared at the vast gray emptiness before me. I waited an hour. I could either take a downer and return to the sack or have coffee and make it another early day. I decided on the coffee. When it was perking I heard the bedroom door open and Many came out in her robe. She comes to coffee like a buzzard to a bloated carcass. She can see and smell it-sense it-a mile. away.

She sat down next to me with her mug and drew the robe tight around her. In the semi-darkness she looked very dark, like a black woman. When a Calabrian spends three weeks on the beach the results are awesome.

"Again huh?"

"Uh huh."

There was a slow sigh.

"How far did you run `yesterday?"

"Seven miles."

"And you took two sauna baths. You had a split of wine with a big dinner. And you can't sleep?"

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