25 May, 2008

A Life Amphibious

My father was born with gills and webbed feet, the son of a mermaid and a merchant marine. The earliest photograph of him I have seen was a grade school portrait, which suggests those features — the gills, at least — atrophied as he got older, for they were nowhere to be seen by then. For the entirety of his life, though, as with any creature born of the sea, my father would remain drawn to water and all things aquatic. At eighteen, he enlisted in the United States Navy, where whatever vestigial toe-webbing remained would have been perceived as an asset. He dove freely into untested waters, canoed down rolling river rapids, fished with nets. He collected seashells and coral. He kept tropical fish. I remember the way he'd whisper to them while sprinkling in their food, inviting them to dinner by invoking their secret names: to him they were not angelfish, gourami, or tetra but Streamer-Tail, Little Bubble-Maker, Prism-Darter. They were his piscine friends, exiles from the same kingdom, and they kept him company in his home on dry land.

Of course he owned vessels — a fifteen-foot aluminum canoe, an inflatable raft, a small sailboat. These were the only way my mother and I could accompany him on his watery communions. Creatures of terra firma is what she and I were — awed by the shadowy ubiquity of water in the world, shaky on deck, barely submersible. My father was our fearless captain, ready to brave the storms and show us landlubbers there was little to fear from the murky depths. When he would change tack to head into a squall, or paddle us towards the rocks, we had to wonder whether he hadn't momentarily forgotten our handicap. But always he brought us through, dampened by the spray, most likely, but quite alive. Being with him in the presence of water meant knowing fervency for life; his enthusiasm was contagious.

We towed the sailboat with us one year, on a family vacation to the Florida Keys, when I was a boy. Our first night at the coast, my mother and I slept in the van. Displaying uncharacteristic childlike eagerness, my father spent the night in a sleeping bag on deck, docked in the marina a few hundred feet away. Mosquitoes, of course, left him unmolested. It was blood they craved, not the clear salinity of what his veins pumped. As the sun rose from the center of the Atlantic, Mum and I stumbled salty-eyed into the morning. We found my father already unmoored, gliding aimlessly around the marina on a steady wind he'd been loath to let pass unavailed. He waved to us. There was no telling how long he'd been out. He had to have woken at least an hour before dawn, in order to have time to erect the mast and secure the rigging. Out on the blue, his sails were brimming, his smile gleamed.

The day was long and humid, and by late afternoon had given way to the slate horizon of an impending storm. Since that morning we'd been skirting the coastline. Because we had no radio, no compass, no map — indeed, no navigational equipment of any sort (what kind of an adventure would it have been, otherwise?) — we dropped anchor off a tiny, sandy island with a sliver of clear beach large enough to pitch our tent and light a cookfire. We ate thin vegetable soup with crackers and nibbled on roasted peanuts. The soup scalded my tongue as I sipped too eagerly from a battered tin cup. When the rain came, at first with uncertainty, we retreated but left the tent flaps open so we could watch the clouds tumble and the far-off waves clash. I fell asleep to the popping of fat drops on the canvas and the thick air of our gradually smoldering fire. I dreamt of wild seas.

In the small hours, the three of us awoke startled. The tide was coming in. It lapped inches from the front of the tent. Already the remains of the fire had been swallowed; now, ever hungry, the water was reaching for us. Pattering rain kept on as we hurriedly pulled stakes and carried our shelter several feet back, to the tree line. As the beach gradually disappeared, we looked on, unsure if the high ground we'd claimed would be high enough to avoid a late night escape back to our boat. I fell back asleep eventually, as did Mum, but Papa was vigilant. His silhouette at the front of the tent reassured me when I woke again, later, to the sound of his whispered supplications to the waves.

The scene at dawn was much different. By that time the tide had gone out so far that it had stranded the boat, dry and resting pitifully at an angle, on its keel. Seaweed draped the line to the shore, imparting a look of abandonment, like a ghost ship in spite of its cheerful blue hull. Not knowing when the waters would again rise, my father set to work righting her, the way people attend to a beached whale. Now pushing, now rocking, now patting her belly, he coaxed the boat back into her element.

Packed in and hungry, we set course for the mainland beyond our horizon. Arcane sailor knowledge or natant instinct guided my father at the tiller as he steered us toward the marina from which we'd put out. The wind that morning was robust and consistent. I stood aft of the small cabin, catching briny air in my nostrils. In my ears was nothing but that whooshing roar. Then Papa said something indistinct and my mother laughed. I turned, hoping to hear. They were smiling — such wide, open smiles! — and with the sun radiant on his face I watched my father draw a deep, contented breath, and surveyed his neck and jawline for the row of fishy slits I knew just had to be there.