With an eye on Shannon thirty yards down the slough, I closed the few strides to Flannery. Each daughter sat on a mud bar, with Shan hurling fistfuls of silt to the rising brine while Flan constructed her diorama. Salt from an ocean dip laced our skin as the sun drew out more in sweat, and I watched a small, oval shadow pass through Shannon toward me and her younger sister. Expecting a gull, I looked up, watching the osprey’s mottled breast and cocked, gilded eyes scan the channel before gliding across the road to the bay, for the richer odds of menhaden schools or a sun-drowsed, surface-drawn fluke.
“Here, Flan,” I said, dropping three dozen broken reed lengths next to a cross-legged, mud-spattered knee. “For your church.”
“Thanks, Dada,” she said, poking a reed stem in the salted mud, a finale to one of several structures in the growing village. “I’m going to do the church next.”
Taking another look at Shan, I snapped twice and clicked my tongue, something I’d done since I could remember. Speechless and autistic, it’s a way to remind her we’re still around. Sometimes she turns, mostly she doesn’t. Here she just kept on with her fun.
Whispering past her, another tide pulse silked along either channel bank, dug years ago when engineers reworked a salt marsh to make one of Newport’s beaches more attractive. Despite the reconstitution, the ditch network still functions mostly as a marsh, having re-naturalized enough to mask the long ago tread ruts and odd hydraulic clefts. Embedded, then, within salt grass roots, ribbed mussels lined both banks in cobblestone veins while a mixed school of sheepshead, mummichogs, and sticklebacks – mink-wary, kingfisher-wary, young striper-wary – foraged mosquito larvae beneath the cut bank across from Flan’s budding church. Flushed with the pulse, the aroused school disbanded a bit before re-cinching, excited by the liberties the deepening water afforded.
Blue crabs, too, normally offshore, were in to spawn. As with much marine life, the marshes are a nursery to them. Skitching sidelong our way, two materialized from the morass of rotted spartina along the channel bottom. Claws clenched below shell-socked eyes, one followed another in pursuit, their collective legs trailing a single cloudbank that with the tide dispersed upstream. Shannon must have seen them, too preoccupied with her repetitive splashing to care, but Flan, I knew, would want to catch them. Ill-tempered to start, the strong-clawed creatures would be particularly testy now. Luckily, I had a story to tell.
“In a second two crabs are going to scuttle right by us. Just watch them, ok?”
Shan pitched another double fistful of sand, kneading her fingers in time with the ripples. Despite this, an egret – blank white – poised where the channel bent just before the freshwater impoundment berm. Motionless, the bird fixed, awaiting a mistake by the increasingly careless baitfish.
“Can’t we catch the crabs, Dada?,” Flan asked, ignoring her church a moment to look in the channel.
“Not these, honey. They’re super feisty.”
“Super-super. When you were in Mama’s belly Shannon tried to pick one off the beach. I put my hand down first and it pinched this finger and made a dent. It wouldn’t let go.”
“Did you cry?”
“I thought about it.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Ok, I didn’t, but Mama laughed when she saw my face. It hurt, and if one grabbed your little hand it would hurt even more.”
“Ok, but can I see them?,” she said, standing.
“Sure, they’re right there.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, look.”
The follower hadn’t made progress, just keeping pace as the two passed by.
“They’re blue,” Flan said. “like the ocean.”
“They sure are. They mostly live out there, but come in here to have babies. Remember last year, on the dock in town, when it looked like it was snowing underwater?”
“Oh yeah. Those were the crab babies. The lady told us. They looked like little ghosties. You see those two little sticks next to each other?,” she said, pointing back to the village. “They’re going to get married in the church and have babies too.”
Sitting back down, she resumed her construction as the crabs disappeared up channel to clack out whatever randy umbrage was due. Downstream, Shannon hurled another load, laughing, while at the bend the egret snaked its head lower, freezing the bill just above water, an art, I imagined, to veil its telling shadow.
Most times we have the network to ourselves, but the crabs draw attention. Hearing male voices – boys’ – within the reeds to the left of the egret, I looked. The vegetation screened them, but a hunk of meat arced up then down, tethered by fishing line.
“Not there, idiot. There. Ahead of them.”
“What? There’s two right there.”
Shan continued with her sand, laughing with the new sounds. We’re lucky. It might be the severity of her condition, but sudden noises or unexpected strangers don’t upset her as is common. Such things, in fact, often baffle her to giddiness. For her part, Flan heard too.
“What are those boys doing, Dada?,” she asked, craning.
“Fishing, Flan. Or at least crabbing. People catch the crabs to eat when they come in to have babies.”
“No. Just chicken and string. The crabs pinch and don’t let go. The people pull them right in.”
“Do they pinch the people?”
“Sometimes, I think. I’ve never done it.”
Something plunked near the egret, a deep slurp, forcing the bird into heavy air. Flapping our way, it peeled, gliding up and over the impoundment, gold legs stretched behind. In the scrub willow shading the berm a yellow warbler blistered out a few scolding notes, while the male, sun yellow, flew ten yards then perched in full view, trying to distract from the nest. The boys, though, didn’t notice.
“Let me have it. I caught the first one.”
“Yeah, then you tangled the line.”
“Seriously. Why’d you jump? It didn’t even pinch you.”
“They’re up here,” a fourth said, coming into view along the pool the egret vacated, stopping where the channel legs made their right angle. “Just bring everything here.”
Emerged from crunching, swaying reeds, one kid came out followed by two, all filing behind the first, who still stared in the pool. Two carried buckets, setting them down when the lead raised a lithe, sun-darkened arm.
“Ten. There. Give me the bait.”
The rear kid complied, passing the rig from one set of hands to the next. When it reached the lead he took it then tossed in the chicken. Drawn to Shan’s movement and laughter ten yards off, the two middle kids turned. With Shan scooping sand I snapped and clicked. The boys pivoted back, watching the line as the lead kid teased the bait, jiggling an upstretched hand.
“He’s got it! He’s got it!,” one shouted.
“Jesus,” the handler said. “These things are so stupid.”
“Jerk it,” the fourth said.
“No, that’s what you guys do. Slow and steady. That way you don’t rip it away.”
Stepping back, he beached two crabs. Flan, straining, couldn’t see. I hoisted her to my shoulders, where she watched the three rear kids crowd the catch. One stretched a bucket lengthwise along the bar while another tried to herd. The third reached, then hopped away, provoking collective laughter from the wranglers. Having spooled the line, the catcher threw the meat in the reeds.
“Hurry,” he said. “We have to go.”
Lowering Flan, I set her back in the mud. Beach peas were in bloom, spackling the diminutive dunes encasing the channel with white-tipped, lavender lobes. Buzzing softly, bumble bees fussed among them.
“See the bees, Flan, in the flowers?”
Nestled before her half done church, she stuck the two reeds in the floor, side by side.
“Will they kill the crabs, Dada?”
“They will, Flan. But it’s ok. They’ll go to heaven.”
“Ready for the wedding?,” she said.
“Ok. This is the girl, and this is the boy.”
As she went through her paces, I turned. Shan had quieted, running fingertips the length of her bare legs as she does, staring at water, staring at sky. Further down the kids had bucketed the crabs. By the silhouettes it looked like they had four or five. One boy peeled back the lid, poking a stick in.
“Come on. Hit it. You’ll never kill it that way.”
“Here. You do it.”
The one who caught the final two was in the water, up a little ways toward Shan. Hunched, he wrenched something loose then stood, dripping, holding half a rusted sign post. Splashing ashore, he approached the others, pointing.
“Pop the lid.”
One did. Inside the bucket shadows tried to scale the sides. Poised above, the boy torqued five times, jabbing, then dropped the post, walking toward us.
“Come on. I said we have to go.”
Gear in hand, the others fell to walking.
Taking a half step from Flannery, I placed a hand on her head, asking what the priest was saying. Shan, still stroking her legs, never turned as the kids marched by, bucket hinges squeaking. Before they reached Flan and me the boys angled, gaining the faint trail to the beach. Pocking the sand single-file, they left a lone tread and were gone. Flan went on with her story. Squatted beside her, I watched Shannon. Two cabbage white butterflies twirled about her legs before scripting over the channel, settling into flowers.
“The water’s still now. Slack, like you said.”
She was right. The tide had stopped. Baitfish moved in a dark cloud, strays daring away, while from somewhere down the bend a kingfisher rattled. Undulating into view, it perched on a willow across from where the kids had been then shook its crest. Bowing, it began its vigil. For an hour, maybe less – I never remember – the marsh would repose before everything turned, flushing things ready and unready out to sea.