Winner of the 2018 Disquiet International Literary Program Prize in Nonfiction
Ninth Letter is proud to feature “The Wrack Line,” the prize-winning essay by Mary Birnbaum that explores the liminal space of the beach, a place between water and land’s domain where joy and danger coexist. With happy memories of plunging into the water with her mother when young, Birnbaum, now a mother herself, often feels “dizzied” by her fretting after the safety of her children. The language of this essay is luscious, evoking with clarity all the senses engaged by the shore. Yet she also examines the liminal spaces within herself, the past and present, the beach accentuating the emotional balance of friends, husband and daughters. The tide moves in and the tide moves out, externally and internally, in this clear-sighted, emotionally complex essay.
I was at the beach with my two small daughters and two male friends when about thirty meters north, a fisherman reeled in a small shark. The light was going; we stood at the lip of evening, old friends talking, while the children played and played, but we could tell even from our distance that the silver fish, maybe eighteen inches long, was the perfect miniature of a Great White. Quickly I reasoned it was likely a species of catshark, however petite and fierce. It whipped around in S-shapes on the end of the line, all solid muscle and indignation. Its captor was barefoot. He wore shorts and a T-shirt. He’d been sitting in a beach chair, his ten-foot rod planted in wet sand beside him, when the line jerked. Before long, my daughters noticed the shark and waded toward the fisherman to get a closer look. I called to them, saying that the man was busy. I said they should give him space. I thought there was a good chance he wanted to be left alone; he’d come out here by himself in the evening, after all the families should have gone. And it was a shark, after all. Even a tiny, hooked shark looked dangerous.
When I was very small, my mother carried me into the sea on piggyback, as if to make an introduction. I’d hold her around the neck and press my cheek to the warm skin between her shoulder blades. She dove into the barreling waves and I clung to her and squeezed my face shut when we plunged in. When we emerged, I opened my eyes and the world was bright light until forms of land would slowly harden back to being. Those days, when the roaring sea filled my nose and throat, I sputtered it out on a laugh. I go to the beach now with my own daughters and feel foreboding; where there should be joy there’s only the sense of a reckoning. What does it mean for a girl to grow up at the beach? It’s possible that then all the fears of her life will be reckoned in that gap between water and land.
Coastal San Diego, the place where I come from, is not known for its fishing. Or, not known to me that way. But occasionally in my childhood, I saw men take a pole and a bucket and a chair down to the beach. They came out in the evening or early morning and dug a hole to stick the rod in, canted toward the sea. They sat and waited. The line they cast toward the water was as invisible to us as it must have been to the fish, so that on the beach they just looked like men with big sticks, watching heaving water like a TV. I always assumed they must be fishing as some sort of meditation, without hope of an edible catch. I couldn’t guess what someone might pull from the water here because for most of my life I didn’t familiarize myself with animals or sea life around Southern California. In recent years, however, the fearsome wild is all I see. I know what a catshark is because I looked it up, the way I look everything up these days. The birds and the fish and the plants, snakes and spiders. I know them by names and spots and stripes. I know the animals by how they could hurt us, even when they are beautiful to see. I tell myself that this is part of responsible parenting, this catalogue of risk.
Beacons, a beach of ruddy big cliffs, the beach where we’d found ourselves that day, was in north San Diego. Not particularly known for sharks, even tame ones, it was instead rife with stingrays. In the low tide, the sand was packed hard and gray, in some places as dense as concrete. Sanderlings and black-bellied plovers danced over it in little tribes, stepping so swiftly they seemed to hover. Cocky western gulls alit alone to look for abandoned snacks. The dots on their beaks made me think of Marilyn Monroe. The last of the beachgoers has wended their way up the switchbacks on the cliff but the coconut smells of surf wax and Coppertone still hung over the sand. We’d come to meet two of my old friends, Paul and James, to be together in the last day-lit hours.
I dated James for a short time after college. We had been friends as kids and teenagers on these beaches and then briefly after college we were more than friends, and then we were not; he moved far away. I stayed home and eventually I got married and had kids. He moved back and got a girlfriend. Over some years—now we both narrowed on forty—he and I worked out how to be friends again, though there was no denying how romance re-contours a friendship. The truth is, I loved him terribly. I felt I’d loved him since, at the age of twelve, I saw him cut through some steep wave on his surfboard, careening weightless over water like a sea bird.
My seven-year-old daughter sprinted for the surf, all bony joints and shoulder blades pointy as fins. She hooked a rope of seaweed around her foot as she ran and as it un-looped behind her, a dank tang of the sea wafted up. She laughed and kicked it free and continued at a gallop. She hollered back to my friend Paul to come hold her hand in the surf, probably because his company—how he looked to the ocean for adventure and possibility and surprise—delighted her. Holding Paul’s hand was nicer than my quavering grip, my grimacing fear, how I nagged her to shuffle her feet to alert the rays. Paul obliged, as he always does. He’s a teacher with a gift for calm and patience, for stoking a child’s natural enchantment rather than tamping it with concern. He enjoys kids in a way I often forget to, dizzied as I am by fretting.
The five-year-old hung back near me and James. He and I could still be awkward together, so the child was a nice buffer. I waited for her to do something I could comment on. We made shallow conversation. How are your parents, how are your sisters? My child’s baby pudge had all but dissolved. Soon she would be hard edges and agile steps. She squatted, inspecting the strewn seaweed trail. Translucent beach hoppers bounced over the sand, chaotic in the abrupt rearrangement of their shelter. Kelp blades slid all over one another with waxiness of playing cards. A holdfast—that big marine fist of a root system—revealed itself at the bottom of the wet pile. Not for the first time, I thought about the name holdfast, about how this clawed bony tangle once clung to objects on the ocean floor, anchoring a kelp tree as it reached for light. Kelp can rise at the rate of two feet a day. This holdfast might have moored a towering underwater forest, stalks 150 feet tall that finally spread at the surface like a raft. Now some normal sea violence had washed it ashore and it lay collapsed with countless other clumps along the wrack line. Blood worms and crabs and sand fleas sheltered underneath the limp rope. I thought about how life washed in, it rearranged and transformed, and washed back out. Eventually even the holdfast would release its grip and let go. That seemed simple.
My baby grabbed hold of a kelp bulb and tried to pop it between her thumb and pointer, but her pinch couldn’t crush the sphere. I pinched it for her and it detonated with a satisfying snap and a gush of seawater. She took me by the hand and led me toward the waves. Surreptitiously I shuffled my feet to advise stingrays.
My husband dislikes the fact that I keep these male friends from childhood. I have known them forever, I say. I knew them before I knew you. His rumpled feelings don’t stop me from taking my kids and meeting up with the men for a sunset at the beach, for a potluck dinner, a benign game of Scrabble or any other word game. Unlike my husband, these are men who talk about books and art. If we really get into it, I argue at him that sometimes I just want to talk to people who like books and art. What I don’t say is that I discovered that I have an increasing taste for risk in marriage. Toeing the line of damage feels wild in a safe way. My husband is from Kansas and I fool myself that maybe he doesn’t know what happens with young people on the beach.
Courtships take place. Some wild teenage boys wrap their arms around the waists of teenage girls and toss them in the breakers. The girls squeal and flail, they look irritated or delighted; it’s possible they are both or neither. Everyone is getting hot and looking for some way to cool off and then cook again. At the peak of particularly searing days, one could come across 100 square meters of oily young bodies baking on a patchwork of neon towels, keeping still, face down, their round butt cheeks gleaming at the sky. Kids stacked their surfboards against the cliffs, also faced down, so that the coconut-scented board wax wouldn’t melt away. Still it dripped oily and pooled. Pop songs drifted up, tinny, from little speakers. At the snack bar you could buy a Big Stick popsicle and try and eat it before it dripped all the way to your elbow.
After school every day we went. On weekends and for entire summers in Junior High and High School and then college we went to the beach. Salty boys and girls grew into their bodies, shapeshifted from children to adolescents and somehow, taken mostly unaware, mid-stroke, we hardened into adults. I concede maybe the beach did not spell sex for every coastal kid, but for me the place always smelled like some dank entanglement of limbs and breath and sweat. Where we played in the space between land and sea, we also mated. We got together and got broken, we returned for more.
One sweltering recent day, feeling smothered by marriage and Santa Ana winds, I drove the kids to the cove in La Jolla, about twenty minutes south of our neighborhood. I knew I wouldn’t know a soul, and that was the point. My children and I crossed from hot to dampening sand, holding hands. We walked into the ocean until I was waist deep, the girls were splashed in the face. The littler child was just five and I boosted her up over the waves gurgling in. I lifted her higher than I needed to. She squealed happily and whipped her short legs. I looked at her and in her face, as sometimes happens, I saw myself and remembered how safe it felt to be in the sea with my mother.
Dozens of leopard sharks inhabit the La Jolla cove. I saw the sharks with my side-eye and, though I know they are docile, I felt my heart trip. They were blackish flags, wavering in place. This shark population is almost entirely pregnant females, come to shallow water to incubate their unborn. Triakidae are also called hound sharks. They are shadows haunting the water. Sometimes they’re positively there, but other times, if you’re me, the light smacks the sea such that you can’t be sure whether a blot is kelp or fish or a trick of sight. They’re not large, as sharks go. They’re rarely longer than three feet, but most all species of shark still look like sharks. Hound sharks will have mere slits for mouths. They couldn’t nibble a toe if they tried; they content themselves to vacuum invertebrates from the sand and warm their bodies in a cove. But, were they even a little larger, they might induce something like a Jaws-type panic, people clambering from the water one slick body over the next, screaming and losing balance and falling into the shallow spume, scrambling out, clawing at land. Like what happens to me these days, inside, when confronted with the horizon, the live contents of the unbounded world.
I kept a squinted eye on the hound sharks, which is the way I look at everything these days, narrowly, limiting light. I didn’t point them out to my kids or tell them about how the brown spots earned the animals their name—how beasts of the sea sometimes mirror the beasts on land, that patterns are everywhere, every time we look—though the kids would have charged toward that mystery. They would have been delighted to find a wild animal sunning nearby. I said nothing but knew they were there, the way you can be obliquely aware of a possibility, a dark form—branch or burglar?—outside a nighttime window, and still go about your business. Standing in the gleaming sea, holding one child by the armpits, I wrinkled my eyes so hard they were mostly shut. I tried to be relieved by the cool stillness of sea, the relief from wind. Maybe I felt the desert heat hiss off me where my body touched the water. But I was more relieved that we hadn’t been able to find snorkeling masks. I didn’t want to see the animals clearly, no matter how timid they supposedly were. I knew I wouldn’t have enjoyed myself out there after seeing their shark faces. I may not have been enjoying myself very much as it was, considering that I was filled not with gratitude for the day and my daughters, but with consciousness of a perceived menace.
One funny thing about the beach is that when you’re on the beach and you say you want to go in, you mean go in swimming, but when you’re in the sea and you say you’re going in, you mean to the shore. Maybe I was trapped in the middle, in that liminal, here-nor-there space and I would be forever. The foreign beach was still the beach. The danger remained. I knew which rodents most erode the cliffs, the species of the alive and dead jellyfish that flopped onto the sand, the teeming life that would be revealed in the sharp reef when the tide sucked out, which marine mammals would come to bear their young while sea birds winged watching, inches over the water and sometimes disappeared diving. The teenagers in La Jolla played Smashball on the sand and took selfies and when the still heat became too much, they rushed to the sea and hollered when the first wave struck their bodies. My daughters looked on, intrigued. I looked away.
At Beacons, that day with James and Paul, the day with the hooked shark, the fisherman didn’t smile when he saw my kids wade close. He gripped the animal around its back, behind the dorsal fin. He tried to work the hook from the sneering mouth, though the fish writhed powerfully. I called to the kids again, but they wouldn’t be distracted from the intimate struggle. They moved in very close, the way kids do before they’re old enough to sense that people aren’t supposed to approach one another that way. I went after them. The man wore a baseball cap. He had sunglasses perched on his bulbous nose. Under the nose was mustache so profuse that one could not discern a mouth. His fleshy face wobbled as he worked. A walrus, I thought. I put a hand on each daughter’s shoulder, gently urging them back. I tried a smile on the fisherman, a resigned look that I hoped would say, “You know how kids are!” He wasn’t paying attention. I’ve never tried to fish, so I didn’t know, but it seemed he was having a difficult time freeing his hook. This was clearly not the animal he wanted. He meant to be rid of it, but that rubbery mouth would not yield the line. My kids and I watched while he twisted and tugged at the hooked shark in a manner so vicious I suspected the animal would be killed. Blood welled up around the entry point of the silver hook and a red trickle ran toward the man’s elbow. I put one hand out, touched each daughter on the shoulder, trying to beg them off. How long had the shark been out of water? How long could it survive lashing about, seeping blood? Suddenly I wanted to insist that the man give the shark to me. Just let me do it! I thought. Give me a try. You’re going to kill it! We had been on an airplane recently, flying across the Pacific Ocean. The matte blue spread below us, in every direction for hours that felt like days; it seemed. Several rows ahead of us an infant howled. For hours, the baby cried in unknowable distress and I had the same thought that I was having now: “Just give me the goddamn baby! Let me hold it!”
The longer we stood there watching, the more frustrated and aggressive the fisherman grew. My insides churned; I felt myself quail. The caught animal fought less and less. I worked up a forceful motherly tone and told my kids to come with me now. I took them by the hands and pulled them away, though their necks swung back immediately to follow the drama. We went back to Paul and James, who diverted the children with a sand castle.
Minutes later, I saw the fisherman finally unhook the shark. I couldn’t tell if it wriggled at all or whether it survived. He took it by the tail and flung it into the surf resentfully. I imagined it darting for deep water, speeding away from the suffocation, the death of dry land. The men and my children and I made a drip castle at the water line, scooping handfuls of wet sand and letting it sieve down through our fingers. The irregular spires sagged even as they pointed up toward the sky, our layers upon layers of drips, porous and fantastic like the unfinished Sagrada Familia. We kept the drops coming. The sun had long since sunk, the beach was so dim that we’d become dark forms kneeling on the wrack line, bending and unbending without any intention of stopping, not speaking, like people at prayer. Like people asking a question over and over.
When I was in early labor with my second daughter, I had come to this beach, to Beacons, to swim. Labor was taking forever and our house, where the birth would take place, was filling with eager, helpful people. We were in the dead of summer and I needed to be free of them, the people and the heat, for a bit. My husband brought his surfboard to the beach and paddled out past the breakers. I surfed a little when I was a teenager. I was passable at the sport, but mainly I just wanted to be out there, where the one I loved perched like a sentinel. I wanted to look back to the land from the water, the way he saw it. I paddled out even when I was daunted by the size of the waves, the way sometimes a big set would roll in out of the deep like some god shaking out a tablecloth. I muscled toward the deep in a fear-blended eagerness, up over the wave lips before they crested. I’d see, when the sun hit the backside of a swell, bundles of kelp or quick fish, as through a window pane, visible in the arcing water.
I sat, enormously pregnant, uncomfortable but silent on the packed sand, watching the surfers, watching the water fold out on the beach, feeling for changes in my body. The baby was very still. It had engaged heavily down between my hips. Sometimes I felt my belly and my pelvis clench like a weak fist. I wasn’t in terrible pain, but labor was shifting, setting in. My first labor had been long, too. The pain then had been foreign and surprising. Somewhere in the intervening two years I’d forgotten that feeling, but the reminders were coming on regularly now. Along the beach kelp baked in the sun, turning brittle and crispy, smelling of salty death. After a while I got antsy and needed to move. (Sometimes, when it’s not tearing you apart, labor feels like a sleep-walk.) I had the urge to swim out to where my husband sat on his board beyond the breakers.
I was slow in the water, with a body big and unbalanced. At full term I carried both my daughters straight out in front, like a big bullet headed slowly for the world. I pushed through the waves backward, so the water wouldn’t smack my tender belly. Past the foam, the ocean was green and threaded with kelp. When I was deep enough I laid back, enjoying weightlessness, the ocean bobbing me and my child, me giving in. I made a loping backstroke for the spot where my husband sat on his board. I came right up to the edge of the fiberglass plank and gripped the edge with my fingertips. I shaded my face when I looked up at him, but the sun was glanced on water everywhere like tinfoil, and light shot in my eyes. He could have been any man, the way he was back-lit. I said hi. He said he wasn’t sure I should be out here. I was sort of affronted by that and I asked why. He said some guys out there said they saw a shark. He seemed calm. I looked harder into his face to see if he might be joking. He wasn’t. He said it was probably just a little sand shark, but that maybe I should go back in. I said yes, I thought I would go in, and I swam toward the shore, much quicker than I’d come. On the way, my feet brushed reedy weeds and maybe rushing fish. Each second felt like the moment before an attack. I thought about how my husband knew about me, about how my heart was probably still compromised and that’s why sometimes he acted cruelly and could watch his pregnant wife panic for shore.
Last week we were at Beacons again. I was there with my daughters and my mother. The place was so crowded we had to trundle our things quite a way down the beach to find a clear patch to lay towels. The children played. They dug holes and skipped. They ran into the waves and away from them, toward me, always both alarmed and delighted, the high peals of their laughter barely audible over the booming sea.
I thought I saw a dog swimming in the waves. A sleek head bobbed in and out of the surf. I realized it was a sea lion, and a big one. I was not the only one who saw her—it was a her, a big glossy female—rearing up and down, coming closer then retreating, looking to the shore and making a decision. Dozens of people gathered at the edge of the water to see the animal, taking pictures and gathering in little groups, wanting to be near her. Look at the seal, they said. I pulled my kids back from the water and knelt and held them around the waists. I whispered to them,
“She’s a sea lion. You can tell by the little ears sticking out. The mothers come to shore to give birth.” Other people on the beach crept closer, some fully dressed, with shoes on, water lapping at their ankles and even their thighs, their shoelaces and the bottoms of skirts dipping in the sea. For a few minutes we all glowed in the space between civilization and the wild.
Then my mother said, make sure the children don’t get too close. The mothers can be aggressive. I agreed and begged the children back. The main trouble with my taxonomy of risk is that I know the worst danger is love and there’s just no saving the kids from that.
The sea lion brought her whole body onto the beach rocks, she reared up at us, to eye level. Then, maybe having made up her mind, she turned and flattened back into the water. In the froth, her great body undulated like brown silk for a few moments, and then she was gone.
Mary Birnbaum is outgoing editor of Lunch Ticket’s Diana Woods Memorial Prize in nonfiction. She earned an MFA at Antioch University in Los Angeles and has contributed to Lunch Ticket and The Week. She resides in Vista, California with her daughters and husband. If you like, you can find her on Twitter @ailishbirnbaum