Commencement

Through summer the bay lumped it up in patches some days, others not, but by now, Halloween, the red kelp carpeted the beach every morning, where the tides re-compiled it hour to hour. Having been out of New England for thirteen years, I’d nearly forgotten about Indian Summer, though 2010’s wasn’t so much a re-instated warmth as a continuation of it. While still fifty-some sunny degrees, then, scarcely a soul wended the Rhode Island sands that two months prior were awash in beach blankets, impediments Shannon and I navigated with effort just to gain the surf.

Now, with the expanse largely clear and the carousel and pavilion shuttered up, she picked her way through the seaweed mats, bending for detritus ranging from gull feathers to plastic spoons to candy wrappers to a ravel of striper skin tattered out from an eyeless skull. Gulls foraged the weeds’ fringes, and Shan occasionally broke off to give brief, passionate chase before the maroon plant mush drew her back. Having called her name many times only to receive the accustomed no reply, not even a glance, I mostly busied myself in the same mush, mid-shin in places, toeing crab claws and amphipod husks while finally feeling the onset of revelation, watching my nineteen-month old wordless daughter plunge herself in the world.

 *    *    *    *

Sometimes we’re shown the thresholds we cross, others we see for ourselves, while still more are sensed days or even months before life eventually shoves us through. My wife Karen and I were twelve weeks from Shannon’s official diagnosis, eight from first hearing a professional voice say ‘autism’, and two from calling the initial therapists to our apartment for an assessment. Having spent nearly every hour of every day with Shan since her birth, however, many of them here on Newport’s Easton’s Beach, I was finally receiving tinglings that no matter what lay ahead, as a family we were destined for unkempt, unanticipated corridors, even if such a warren remained nameless.

“Shannon,” I said, trying again, repeating once more to the air.  “Shannon.”

The light off-shore breeze still comforted this late in the year, and I watched it spin the towering wind turbine a half mile inland, beneath which Karen worked at a social services agency, having taken the job a year before to get us out of Queens. I’d been living in Alaska when we met, and with both of us forty we knew that a protracted settling in period would jeopardize the tremendous desire each of us had to have children. Subsequently, having corresponded by email for a couple of months while a continent apart, we met in Maine for a few days. Two weeks later, with me back in Alaska, she called, pregnant, a rapidity we hadn’t expected. Two and half weeks after that I moved to her Queens apartment, and eight months later became a full-time parent. If Queens was far more pleasant than I’d anticipated, particularly after ten years in small-town Alaska, Karen and I agreed that it was too cramped to raise a child, and we took the first outside job that offered. Soon enough places like this beach became familiar to Shan and me nearly sand grain to sand grain.

Earlier, in June, maybe July, blue crabs had come in, to breed I’d guessed, mostly stationing along the beach’s corners. At the southern face of Aquidneck Island, itself at the mouth of Narragansett Bay, Easton’s Beach backs a horseshoe cove, where rocky cover protects sea life as the sands end on each side. Bailey Brook feeds it, but what had once likely been quite a salt marsh has been converted to a reservoir across the busy road. The crabs, though, still seem to find enough nursery habitat along the cove’s rocky portions to migrate in every summer. With orange-tipped claws the only discoloration staining a metallic blue armory, they’re well-named. I’d caught Shan a few, but they’re far too aggressive to much more than show a toddler from distance. “Crab,” I said three or four times with her yards away, before dropping the claw-clacking creature to water. Words still drew her then, and she looked over each time, eyes lighting where the hard-shelled body had plopped. She’d stride over, pawing the shallows a while before resuming her own insular play.

At some point the crabs left as fast as they’d appeared, but here, squatting in the kelp at the end of October, fingering dead plants and the hordes of wild rice-like invertebrates they housed, I found one, or at least its remains. Twisting it from sucking weeds, I brushed it clean, with the limp, buff legs drooped off a blanched carapace. Holding a single claw, I spun the rind round like a mobile, then held the shell out. Sunlight breached it, with everything beyond shimmering in opaque blurs, including my daughter.

“Shannon,” I called, pitching my voice to cut both the wind and the thirty yards between us. “Shannon. Look. Crab. Crab. Crab.”

Rising, I stepped through the slush-like weeds until I could squat beside her. She’d been stomping the kelp to watch it spatter all around before dropping the next foot. Dangling the body near her face, I brushed one of many kelp nits off her cheek before speaking.

“Crab, Shannon. See? Crab. Crab. Crab.”

Tight-knit coercion still arrested her, particularly with such a plum offering. Her hand reached, the fingers feathering hollowed armor like squid arms. She squealed, grabbing the shell firm and tossing it far. Walking on, she reached the mat’s rear, where sunlight had crusted its surface. Every stride left a perfect hole behind, and several times I tried again to turn her.

“Shan. Shan. Shan.”

Five mergansers – fish ducks, winter ducks – flew overhead, traveling inland, framed in the big windmill above Karen. When I looked back to our daughter, walking away, she’d begun stomping again, puncturing kelp crust to geyser up the red ferment below like blood from a deep, sudden wound.

“Good Lord, Shannon,” I thought. “Where are we going?”

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