You can find the word if you know where to look. Even fools can sense it: a silent energy alive from stop sign to stop sign, in the air, in the trees, in the nods from green lawns that acknowledge you with lips too tight to smile. Forbidden is everywhere in that place. A limit you feel as even strong swimmers feel the menace of open sea.
First Avenue, whereupon rusted Fords and out-modeled Buicks lumber to and from work, or school, or home to resume life’s imitation, is the artery road for anyone looking to get somewhere. But it is not the only road. Most people miss it and maps even sometimes neglect its existence. Beach Drive quietly branches off First Avenue into a three-mile swoop of road that runs parallel to the coast. The turn takes you away from traffic’s hot, labored breathing. There is no light or sign to declare it. There is only a hasty left and, indeed, the revelation of ocean.
At once, you feel the suddenness of nature’s supremacy. The ocean shimmers in gold and indigo and silver, rolling toward you into yellow dunes and green sea oats that peak and roll back into all that blue. The ocean.
The sun shines on the mansions along Beach Drive. Broad, white columns hold up four floors worth of living, mansions as big as mountains. Big enough to comfort a dozen families and far more space than a single one can ever make intimate. Around each house wrought-iron gates fortify a swathe of lush, green grass. No roads, public access paths, or alleys make a way between the gates to get you from the roadside to the beach. You’d need to be blessed enough to go through one of those doors. For these houses, the shore and the unlimited promise of the sea is their backyard. And theirs alone. Stone animals guard entrances. Towering oak trees have grown for over a hundred years solely to make private wooden patios. There are yellow homes and blue ones and even one made to mimic a log cabin. But to us, they all just look like the White House, like America’s version of royalty—cake, when all we know is crumbs.
The beach winks between the houses, and it’s coy, y’know, winking sort of like the past does or the future. We’d watch the families sometimes wearing shoes out on their lawns. Yellow-haired girls with their golden retrievers pushed on tree swings by green-eyed fathers who make silly sounds from behind them. Whooooaawweee, they yell, and the dogs bark, and the mothers smile, and the sun shines. Oh, does it shine. Shine as if all along what had lit our days was the light that spilled over. It’s glorious—Beach Drive—and it feels like an invitation.
But it is forbidden.
When we were seven, we envied Beach Drive. We would sneak down to the top of the road and pretend we had cars with sunroofs and water houses for our jet skis. After you died, I feared it. And not just the water, either. But that if I looked too long, it would call to me the way it called to you. I’m still afraid, though I can hardly separate fear from grief enough to know the difference. So now, I just mock it. Being here was your act of rebellion. An act as full hearted as it was ineffective.
You’d be, what, nineteen now? I can’t remember your birthday. Ma says no sense in celebrating the birth of something dead, which I guess makes sense. You can, I think, celebrate the death of something that lived. If they lived big enough. I celebrate your dead day because you lived bigger than all of us. It’s important that you know, even still, never once have I blamed the crawfish. Not once. And not for any of it.
I carry your trap and make the left turn onto Beach Drive. The ocean churns through the predawn darkness. Moonlight wafts against the broken waves and makes them resemble puffs of cotton. I walk down and along the road, past the yellow house, past the blue one, past the one that looks like a log cabin. I look for the pear tree just as you taught me. Pear trees need a lot of water to fruit, you told me, and if you can find the water, you can find the crawfish. But you have to catch them before dawn spoils the night, you said, when the world is dark and silent. It’s the living hour, the one that makes us all equal. That’s when crawfish are easiest to catch. It is as if they would happily sacrifice themselves to any who would toil wet earth in the dark; only gods did that, and everyone, at some point, submits to a god. I never understood how you found them. Even after you said you just followed the water. I maintain that the ocean called you. The great, terrifying ocean. And the crawfish taught you how to be brave in the face of it.
There is a house halfway down Beach Drive. The house has a circular fountain at the center of a circular driveway, and the fountain gurgles louder than the crush of nearby ocean. You told me once it is the city commissioner’s house. I don’t remember his name, only that he’d made the tabloids for saying some people are no different than animals, and that’s how you gotta treat them. He didn’t specify the people, dubiously, but I know he meant you, and I know he meant me. The house is white and has large windows that resemble eyes. Its fence sets a barrier along the road, and above it a pear tree grows on the other side. Bulbs of green-yellow fruit dangle like the most dangerous ornaments. They’ll grow, untouched, from yellow to green to brown to black as a warning: Touch nothing in this place. But you did. Maybe you could smell the difference in the water. Maybe you heard the whispers. I’ll never know, but you found it. At the base of the fence, the ground gives way, revealing a hole where the tall grass veiled entry. I push the grass aside, and the opening, just large enough to fit a body, gasps startled air. It smells, at the same time, salty and musty, fresh and yet sat still for centuries. I hold the trap against my chest and slide my body into the opening, ducking low and under the gate just like you taught me.
The earth steps down. It is too dark to see, but I feel my feet pulled into the wet ground as thickets grab my hair and shirt. My eyes adjust to the darkness. The space around me opens wide into the lagoon clearing. It resembles a tiny little lake. Light from the house spills over and dimly illuminates the water and trees, and glints off the dust and rocks and all the things moving quietly under the surface. The silence of the morning allows you to hear freshwater skips off eddies, babbling so softly near the great breaking of ocean tide. The first time I saw it, I didn’t know what it was. You taught me about lagoons. Underground, you said, there are aquifers that hold enough water to make a whole other ocean. In fact, the ocean and the aquifers are cousins like you and me. The fresh and the salted. The above and the below. And the lagoon is where they meet. It amazed me how much you knew as young as you were. Though, I suspect the crawfish told you.
The water is higher than I remember. Rainstorms must’ve raised it high enough to attract moccasins and snapping turtles, maybe even hide gators in the depths. Such big hunters mean a treasure of game. Brim, freshwater bass, river rats, foxes, whitetails, and even bear cubs all drawn to the sound of fresh water. Even the trees, dead and living, seem to edge closer to the water, jostling to get a glimpse of the reflected moon. All the great wild awaken here. But you came for the lagoon’s true treasure. I carry your trap the same way you did with a satchel strapped over my back. The blackness of the sky thins into purple, and the whistle of birds weaves a ribbon through it all. I walk until the sycamore roots fuse together, all but damming the water and lowering the lagoon heights enough to expose stones. I step a foot into the shallow water. The nearest stone large enough to break surface is covered in moss. I lift it and, unnaturally, the mud beneath it swirls then leaps. That’s how you know, you told me, the crawfish are ready. All around, other stones similar in size curve out of the water, shining under the moon like their oft bejeweled cousins.
I could understand if they’d found your body here. Maybe then all of this would be less ceremonial. It would be more like our conversations when we had nothing to do and not so much like the silence of church. I wedge the trap down into the water, making sure to leave no space between it and the earth. The current pushes through the traps net and grabs everything larger than a pebble. I use my feet to stir up the rocks and sand, kicking up clouds until the black water isn’t just black but thick-black like overused oil. The cloudy water rushes through the net. I can’t see all that it traps, so I keep kicking until my legs are tired and I’ve dug myself into the ground. I take care with how much noise I make then chide myself because that care is born of a fear of getting caught. It would disappoint you for me to see myself as an intruder in a place so alive with wildness. The sky lightens from purple to violet. Sunrise will revive memories in the sky I don’t want to see. I work faster, kicking up the rocks at my feet until my thighs tighten. Water still clouded, I raise the trap. It weighs heavy with everything it holds. Though it will never hold enough.
I raise it high, positioning the base of the trap on my knees. A net filled with riches. So many things glint and move, scales and fins and little claws wiggle in the wet pebbles. Dozens, I can see, are crawfish. I wade my hand into the wetness. Little brim I toss back into the lagoon along with nymphs and a few fairy shrimp until only glistening crawfish remain. They do not panic but move their legs and pinchers like a slow dance. I grab one at the sides of its body and hold it up close to see. Black round eyes reflect moonlight back at me, pinchers rising gently seeming to praise as much as defend. They are filled with simple mystery, crawfish, and I think you always liked that. There is more to ditch bugs than scavenging mud or boiling in spices. They know the secrets of the earth in ways men have forgotten, for they, like you, are both of the sand and sea.
I hold the small wonder up to my ear hoping it will tell me the secrets it told you. I only hear, somewhere far away, the hoot of morning owls. I dip my satchel partially into the water and fill it with the little lobsters. The plump, mature bugs I slip into the half-submerged bag, sure to keep them alive a while as they finish their business on this earth. The small ones I toss back into the lagoon with an unspoken promise that I’ll return for them another day. Seven paces to my left, I put the trap back in and work up the water. I catch a half dozen more and toss back a small bass. Seven more paces to my right and I do it again, each time moving closer to the ocean now visible beyond the lagoon. Seven more paces. My arms and legs are tired, but I continue on. I want so many crawfish that it will be hard to walk them all home. I want enough bugs for a great big crawfish boil like you always wanted. One that breaks our routines and brings us all together. One that reminds us we are alive. Because living is a matter of urgency now that you are dead.
Laughter suddenly dashes out like a knife. The unnatural sound slices through morning quiet, each ha curving in and back like a serrated edge. I crouch low and grip my bag. From the white house, I can see, just barely through the trees, a woman pacing the porch—the commissioner’s wife, I think. The moon makes her yellow hair ghost like. She holds a phone to her ear laughs again and says,
“I’m sure he probably fell asleep at the office … wouldn’t be doing my wifely duties if I didn’t at least make the rounds … Yeah, if you hear from him—”
She stops short, listening, and explodes again in genuine laughter. Her laugh is clean. Her laugh is a rainbow of beige. It raises mountains, that laugh, and casts shadows that take light from everything else. Her laugh does not know worry or fear. Her laugh is not wild, and still it is the freest thing I’ve ever heard.
See, someone had found your body on the shore, not far from here. You’d been missing for six whole days. Drowned, they said, pulled out to sea by the undertow. We’d practiced swimming when we had baths together and when the heavy rains made ditches feel like rivers. But the ocean took you anyway. Your eyes were gone when they found you, eaten away into hollow black holes. Your skin was the color of boiled eggs. The sea fattened your body with saltwater. All the color from your mouth the sun bleached away, and sea creatures filled their bellies with any part of you that could be eaten. Crawfish, they said, dined on the last of you. I imagine the commissioner’s family happy on their porch with views of the ocean unaware that it filled your lungs with seawater. I imagine they snacked on artichoke dip and drank sweet tea as the sun set on a graveyard. Yellow hair probably laughed that day too. She probably laughed so loud that the sea kneeled, and the sun lowered its head. And so you were revealed. You drowned. We mourned. For them, the tide that brought you back to shore was no different than any other. Just another crush playing on their dreams like a lullaby. I don’t blame the water or the sparkle of their lives. I don’t blame the crawfish or pears swelling with sweet juice. It is righteousness I blame. I blame that which we all aspire to and you achieved. To be easy. To be good. To be free. Your death confirms for me righteousness will ever outrun ruin.
The woman disappears into the house. The sun breaks offering a stroke of pink in all that violet. Only a few more bugs, I think. I don’t want to be here for sunrise. As I wedge the trap back into the water, something odd reflects the shine of the moon. It flashes at me from down where the lagoon ends and the white, sandy dunes begin, batting moonlight in the manner of polished metal. The end of the lagoon has never once called to me. Not like you. A threshold is how I’ve seen it, marking the place man forces the wild into civility. To go beyond it is to be exposed, to leave the cover of the wild and let my tiny, dark form contrast all that white sand. I move and, again, the metal glints. I imagine a treasure. One you probably saw too; the great treasure at the end of the world. Is that what compelled you into those waves? What were you so keen to find that you lost everything else?
I set the trap down on the grassy bank and wade toward the end. A sycamore tree stands at the place the lagoon stops and the dunes rise. The tree’s wide trunk is like a man’s body, a sentinel guarding against those who’d dare go beyond. Again the shine flickers, and as I near, what the moon reveals steals my breath. Lying at the edge of the lagoon, where the grass is the longest, is a hand. I see it as clear as the morning. The hand is big and white and not moving. A ring grips a swollen finger, and the moon flashes against it again. Not a treasure. A curiosity. I move closer, and more is revealed. A hand leads to an arm, and an arm leads to a shoulder, and a shoulder leads to a body. There is red in the grass and red at the base of the sycamore. Blood is speckled like slashes of paint against his white shirt and his khakis.
The man is older, with a gray-brown beard and eyebrows bushed like shrubbery. His eyes are open, but the pupils are frozen in a climb up into his skull. A gun is in his off hand and a red-black hole makes a mess of the side of his head. Slugs of meat that resemble slime latch onto the grass. Everywhere—blood and meat and khaki and red. I step out of the water. Yours is the only dead body I have ever seen. But it did not look like his. Where you looked asleep in your coffin, this man rests in a still rage. Where you were surrounded by love and mourning, this man is alone with the quiet of the dawn. Where your soul felt to be ascending, elevating gently above us, this man’s soul feels shattered into pieces right here in the grass. I circle him. His mouth is open. His shoes are on. Sadness is yet present in his astonished expression. I have seen that expression before. In the tabloids. Animals, he called us and people like us. I circle him again and in doing so, circle the big sycamore tree. A desire rises in me to make my way to the white house. I’d ring the news like a bell, the old man is dead, the old man is dead, and smile at all the laughter gone silent. No more pushes on the swing, no more golden barks, no more whooooaawweee. I wonder if then the sea will cease to churn. I wonder if a heavy cloud will move across the sun. It hurt so bad to lose you. To lose all that made the ocean move and the sunshine in my life. I do not wish that on anyone. Not even the worst of us. The commissioner’s body rests at the base of the tree. I look up and I see it. Up close. The shock of it looking back at me like a ghost. Your death was never a call to the sea. Your death was rebellion. Carved by blade in the skin of the tree: forbidden. Every letter is sharp and serious and meant to remind anyone who makes it this far just who owns this land. But underneath the lacerated words in your handwriting is penned in black marker: I am free.
A few feet away, the grass becomes sea oats, and the sea oats become dunes, and the dunes glide down to the ocean. I’ve feared that water all my life. And damned it too. But I see it now. In every wave. In every break. The ocean cries for you just like I do.
I climb over the dunes. There is no one else on the beach. Gulls swoop down, their white wings sharp against lavender sky. Pale little crabs dart back and forth almost invisibly over white sand. The breeze moves the oats and the clouds, and observes the night as it finally, finally concedes. I sit on the shore, my speck of blackness exposed against all that white. The sun rises. So much gold and silver glittering over opal. It is a treasure. It is the only treasure that no one can own.