Habit led me down to the rocks, habit and Shannon’s fervor, which would have dragged us to roiled water if custom hadn’t. The waves had drawn more of a crowd than mid-October normally sees, along with the tropic air whorled up from the Caribbean. Swells rolled one upon another, deep-sea black and molten blue, wracking and colliding, wrecking on the train car-sized bedrock fractures the glaciers had jumbled so long ago. Realizing I should have stayed on the grassy lip near the lighthouse with the onlookers, I clenched Shan tight as the Atlantic shoved into gullies and crevices that taste salt maybe once a year, likely less. Bermuda was taking this hurricane, but the fetch reached here, to Narragansett Bay, some seven-hundred miles off.
“Easy, Shan,” I said, cinching her hip against my ribs with a forearm. “Easy.”
Her bare feet ached for wave-worn stone, upon which she usually skipped a few strides before hopping in place a dozen times, then repeat. With cobweb foam blowing all around and sea water channeling within yards before re-flushing to chaos, I sensed the crowd above wasn’t judging me well and headed north, goating the pell-mell slabs as always, more mindful of the ocean than I ever had been. The rock sheets rose higher in this direction, and I was sure I could let Shan down a bit, just enough, anyway, to slake those pining feet.
* * * *
As with any condition, autism presents the afflicted with alien terminology, words passing quickly from foreign to familiar. If malignant and metastasize, in situ and invasive, foist their unwanted kinship upon the cancer-stricken, autism families speak their own tongue. Proprioceptive. Sensory Integration. In vivo. Self-Injurious. Rote. Circadian Rhythm, the light/dark gauge allowing most of us proper sleep patterns but one autism grossly fouls, or vestibular, the inner ear workings granting balance and rational stationing power in the typical but primitive imbalance in the atypical, making Shan and others seem as wormholes, portals between this time and that, one world and the next.
Unlike the gentler surf of most days, this seemed patternless. Normally the weaker sets simply nudge over the lower table rock, spreading like whisked sheets, interspersed by the stronger throbs that only shed a meek fountain or two on impact. Now, even in what passed for lulls, geysers soaked rocks thirty yards from breaking points, with foam motes cast well aloft, snowing cedar boughs and rose tangles. Water thumped water then rock then water then more rock, lashing out then in then out again, muting the day. With her jaw inches from my ear, I could hear Shan’s pinniped squeals, but doubted the assorted gulls – hunched below ragged turf chunks ten yards behind where past storms had chewed away earth – could.
Finally atop a steep scarp that led to a terraced second, I stepped to the plateau and stood. Even here water rushed to the base, but that was twenty feet below. Clenching the shirt fabric over her lumbar for the tightest grip, I let Shan down.
* * * *
All autism queries end the same, even from professionals: “Of course, we just don’t know.” Down at last, Shan hopped and skipped, ever on her toes, twisting soles into fine-grained rock where she paused to examine what her feet touched, fathoming.
“Their sensory intakes are off,” we’d been told. “At least to our understanding. They seek input in ways we either don’t or don’t realize that we do. Toe-walking and a preference for barefeet seem to be a frequent manifestation of that. Of course, we just don’t know.”
We only knew that our daughter hated shoes and adored commotion, any form of it – holiday malls or Newport’s summer streets to be sure, but nature-borne turmoil most of all. Wrenching the shirt tighter, my free hand hovered above one of her shoulders like a shrike as I strode along with her back-and-forths, listening to gales ingest those high-pitched eruptions. Her hand-flaps usually match mood to tempo, and upon arresting each skip/hop sequence she bent at the waist to work two hands and ten fingers in ebullient supplication, exhorting some unseen creature to share in the wonderment she’d stumbled upon.
Southward, toward the old lighthouse and bay mouth, the crowd swelled further. A few raincoat-laden arms pointed to mounting waves, but mostly people just stood, watching. In the brush thirty feet behind us and just above the motionless gulls, a yellow-rumped warbler hopped from soil to cedar then down again, re-joining the big birds’ immobility. Having skipped, flapped, and squealed in continuum for half an hour, Shan went through her paces, throttling from jubilation to restive contentment. A grand swell pushed ashore, soaking us both like a summer cloudburst, and lapping the salt from her upper lip, Shannon nudged against me, further deflating to contemplation.
Lord knows what we seek. Nestling Shan in my lap, I sat cross-legged atop the flat rock, facing seaward. A wrack line wouldn’t show until the storm abated, but we watched what it would contain tumble in and out to the diktat of each pulse. Ever shedding ribbons and flakes, offshore kelp beds always contribute, but here whole uprootings churned about like many-armed cephalopods. Shards of jetsam, too, normally seafloor-bound, vanished and appeared at the will of waves – the torqued wires of ruined lobster pots, a lead line from a lost gillnet, half an outboard cowling, most algae stripped clean by the current turbulence. Then the lighter fare: Plastic bottles. Forks and spoons. A wrecked kite, string attached. Nests of monofilament.
Among it all swirled the faunal waste. Byssal threads severed by the storm, blue mussels flecked the inner life of each wave, rolling with gravel, awaiting the doom of tautog lips, while three cartilage-bound vertebrae segments – large, a seal maybe, or a turtle – snagged on an old limb before all washed back out. A gray lump floated in a just-deposited pool below us, its drenched feathers respiring up and down like branchials. It may have been a catbird, but the bigger storms will knock petrels in. I couldn’t tell and didn’t dare find out. Revolutions of wind banded around us, lifting even Shan’s wet, shorn locks. Rubbing her feet with my thumbs, the two of us simply sat as every onshore creature did – in silence. Occasionally we all do so, need to do so, every fish and fowl and living thing. To creep inside the maelstrom, toe the wormhole, to bestill and be bestilled. To blow out the vestibules and feel the voice of God.