‘The Road under the Bay’, Petra Kuppers

Illustrations © 2016 Miranda Jean



 [ Bridge, © 2016 Miranda Jean ] Long ago, reaching out up here on the bridge, my hand on the hammer, a workman’s hammer, solid and heavy. The bottom edge is rusty in the salty winds, but my palm has kept the shaft smooth and warm, a winking eye in the sun. I heave forward. The hammer shines. My boot slips. The other. Water rushes up. My eyes are open, looking down at the blinding ripples, as the net beneath the bridge pushes the air out of me, and I bounce back up. I crest, past the rivets, and fall again. There: the twang of the metal spirals giving way, the crack, recoil, decay. All happens so fast. I slide and scrape along the undulating net, my hands grasping, useless. The second bounce does not come. I just fall.

The shocking coldness of the water. The deep bend in my spine as I go under and my limbs drive up from my torso. A jelly fish’s mantle beating down, up, down, up, down. A flash of grey. There’s the shark who has waited beneath the net all these months. I had looked down on you, shark, spit into the bluegrey waves, tried to hit your tiny snub-nosed head from high up in the bridge’s fiber work. Now, your teeth fall like a hammer. Around me, crimson.

Now. So many nows. I am floating here, waiting. I stand here, beneath my Golden Gate, the entry to this promised future. The rivets I’ve driven are now bleeding red into the ocean. We are all standing here, awaiting our reward, so many of us workers, fallen off the red girders, crushed on the black ocean, buried in the grey slush of memory and the sickness of sea passages. The cars above weave a vibrating cage of iron and concrete. The sea symphony keeps me here. I shall not pass over. My spine is a spongy weed. All my nows are down here now, and will ever be. My wages are still waiting to be paid. I shall have my recompense, my promised land, a warm bed.


Far across from the red bride and its deep shadows, Doris has entered the Bay’s waters. Her foot tasted the cool salty liquid, almost slipped on the algae-covered rocks. She rebalanced, checked behind her that no-one observed her first attempt at entry. The stone wall at Point Isobel rose placid and quiet to her left, and no dog bounded down the access stairs. No one panicked, seeing her entry. Good.

She had chosen the right time, between the morning professional dog walkers and the late afternoon crowd. The sun was high, but didn’t yet reflect off the neon-green wind-breakers of people she’d seen here for months now, with whom she had never spoken a word. No one had asked which dog was hers. For weeks, she had been a boulder on the edge of the path, something dogs and walkers careened around. It had been pleasant, leaning out over the breakwater, with the tang of the ocean in the wind, her hair tousled by the breezes that lifted the stink of too much dog shit. Her hour of escape after spending her days filing ship manifests for large oceangoing tankers. Pleasant, and enough, for many years.

But today, there had been the albatross outside her office. It had stood on its legs, large and lumpy, staring up at her window. Doris had stopped as she got up from her desk, one hand full of papers, ship manifests to be checked and tabulated. The other hand had smoothed aside the grey silk curtains that kept the world at bay. There was the bird. What was it doing here?

She had seen many sea birds flying high above the rocks by the shore, their silhouettes diving in and out of the wave hollows, or standing still and pecking at the asphalt of the coastal path. But an albatross? She could not remember such a giant bird wheeling among them, and surely none had ever been here in the yard outside her office building, not among these box topiary and tulips that wouldn’t withstand one nip of the blow of the Bay.

Doris hadn’t moved. Through the thick sheet of glass the large white creature stared right back at her, unswayed. The spreadsheets of cargo loads fell from her hand, papers feathering out and intermingling.

She had held the albatross’s stare. Then Doris had raised the water glass and had begun pouring water onto her desk, the sound of dripping and splashing barely reaching her ears. Eventually, she had looked away from the dark globes of the bird’s eyes. Shock ran through her as she saw the destroyed papers on her desk. Red and blue ink flowered across the regular black lines, flowed until they met in the polished depth of the mahogany captain’s desk.

Something had shifted, in that silent invitation of the albatross’s eyes. From one moment to the next, the tankers’ loads had sunk out of sight. Her own body longed for the deep water. Doris ached for pressure and silence.

Another step down the coastal stairway.

The bottoms of her suede trouser legs floated up, turned over. She smiled as she felt the sweet clasp of density on her ankle. She could no longer see the rough steps in the dense sea, and found her way down by touch. Another few moments, and she floated free from all stone. The Golden Gate stood sentinel far out on the Western horizon.

Doris floated horizontally, lolled by small choppy waves. Then she breathed out, and sank. The debris already accumulating around her stayed at the surface. She didn’t sink far, for this part of the Bay was shallow and filthy with coastal mixing. Just far enough for her limbs to remember swimming without effort.

She shot out into the green. At the near bottom, the stones snaked their way from Point Judith’s staircase west-ward across the Bay. She followed, hovering along. For the first few minutes, she felt compelled to return to the surface, holding less breath each time.

At her last surfacing, beneath the weak sun, her eyes blinked away the slight sting of salt, effluvia, and jet fuel. Without holding her breath, she dove again, followed the long dark road that led to the place beneath the bridge.


I can feel the change. The nows, assembling, limning onto each other, old memories and new ripples. Standing here, waiting, I can feel it in the ancient water. Salts, pressure, the way the sound drives through the ocean—somewhere nearby, something has changed, and has changed for me. Someone is coming, and it is my turn to lay claim. She is coming. I have stood here, in the half darkness, till my bones crumbled and fused, till seaweed lacerated the remains of my clothes, till all mingled, fluids to fluids, and whatever was solid corroded away.

This one is coming from the East, not from the bridge above. She is coming through the waters. This one is coming, and she is for me.

The blue roars, shifts, the deep waves of the ocean reaching back to the Farralon Islands and the Great Whites’ mating grounds. I remember the stories. Fast shadows circle me. To my right, a row of sharp teeth wink in the murky light. They are with me, the sharks, night and day, and our purpose has become one: to mate, and to endure.

I lean just so, break the cage of electric lines, conduct the hum into the water, a beacon, a lure.


His hum reaches forward, eastward, spreads out like a darker stain in the dark waters. The sharks retreat out into the blue, driven away by the keening. The sound ripples out, and eventually, its outer edge reaches Doris, still on her way, halfway across the Bay by now, her lungs filled with saltwater. The sound embraces her, pulls her along.

Doris remembers the sound.

“Mum, my teeth are hurting!”

“It’s your people calling, little one, a reminder of home. All the love, and all the promise, over the sea and beyond the stars.” Her mother, clad in an oyster-color silk shift, had freshly returned from a night out in the small town of Bar Harbor. The strange low-level hum hadn’t stopped, and Mum handed her a lemon to bite into.

“When will it stop, Mum? It hurts!”

“I feel it, too, Doree, I know. Just don’t bite down on your teeth, leave them open a bit. It’ll help. Don’t spit: the water in your mouth will help, it will dim the vibrations.”

“When will it stop?”

“Soon, babe, soon.” And her mother had crooned, holding her close, Doris’s face pressed into the slippery coolness of the mother’s gown, her small hand holding long fingers. Her mother had distracted her by working loose a small ring from her own finger, a thin silver band, with an aquamarine cut into a square.

“Here, babe, play with that. See that stone? See deep inside? That’s where they live, far away and under the sea, all the ones we’ve lost, that’s where they live, and one day, maybe, you can visit with them.”

The ring became her childhood companion, and she knew its story, given to her mother by her Doris’s father, a fisherman lost in the sea.

Now, deep under the sea, Doris’s head is full with the humming, now a much deeper pitch in the colder salty waters of the Pacific. Doris’s thumb reaches out to her little finger, and touches the silver band, the aquamarine jewel, so much smaller now in her hand than that night when she first slipped it onto her thumb, so much more fragile. She remembers being held, being caressed, the cool sweetness of her mother’s embrace.

She has not seen her mother for many years. One week after the first time Doris had heard this hum, her mother had vanished, had gone down in her oyster silk to the ocean’s edge, had stood in the moonlight, listening, and had waded in. Doris had watched, not knowing her mother’s intention. As an adult, Doris had never forgiven herself for not knowing what was happening, for not stopping her mother. Surely, her sleek mother was just going swimming, in a warm summer night, in a dress that transformed in the moonlight to a wet shark’s leather, to a pearly diver’s skin.

The hum had ended, that night. And now here it is, again, with the memory of silk and hair and caress. She feels the same pull she had sensed from the albatross and his staring eyes. Longing for her new brethren, she swims on. With each undulation of her swimming limbs, there are the wide wings of the albatross, opening for her.


I do not know her shape. It does not matter, not anymore, hasn’t mattered for a long time. I feel my workman’s promise, bright and clean as the hammer’s shaft, in the watery coils of what was once my brain, where I once thought, all by myself, of love and sheets and hot toddies. She will arrive, she will comfort me, she and I will build a home, on the rim, by the beach. We will be one.

Flashes, like a strike of the sun on the blue sea. Other nows. I remember. The man with a black hat, signing me up in our small village in Italy, the hot sun on baked stone, the smell of jasmine. I had bargained, like a dutiful son, for ship passes for my widowed mother and me. I climbed onto the big ship, to go out and build a new bridge in a new land. Yes, the long journey, seasickness, the rain. Arrival: the ship coming into port, through this opening between the rocky coasts, the opening unguarded by lengthening land arms.

To feel the land again beneath my boots. This new earth, clammy, and foggy. On the wharf, my old mother on my arm, I heard the rumor, an answering moan from us young men, men from the Old Country, men who had been good, who had been honorable. Immigration had closed down, no more Italians, no permits, no fiancée between the damp bedsheets. I nearly fell, and it was my mother who held me upright that day.

At night, there’s the sound of the accordion drifting over from the tavern, climbing up the wooden side of our boarding house. When my mother went to sleep, I turned to the wall. My prick erect, I cried and cried, my heart adrift with the sound across the water, through the fog, to the sharks in the Bay who circle and breed, and never stop.

The promise of the bridge is still here. I am still here. The promise runs in the water, and it boils in me, now. I am holding on to the promise, like my fellows down here in the water shadow, lined up here, awaiting our reward. She is coming, and I will have her. My lover, mine, my union.


 [ Transformation, © 2016 Miranda Jean ] The transformation is complete. Doris’s body has found its rhythm. She glides along the road under the Bay, still on her trajectory toward the bridge. The two deep stone supports emerge on her vision’s horizon. Nearly there.

Her tissues are changing. Salt crystals flood her blood, thin it, transform it, each molecule in its own dance of adaptation and exchange. Delicate barriers breach, water expands cell shunts, floods compartments. She does not know how to pay attention to the minuteness of her changing world, but she knows the roil deep inside her. DNA strands unweave and reweave, a mitosis of a new embrace. Small cytoplankton organisms wander in, and find their home in new pools, rooting deep through her flesh. Cells burst gently, opening like flowers. Tiny fragments of mitochondria unspool and align themselves with the sticky ends of Doris’s older strands, new pearl strings clicking into place.

Between her fingers, thin membranes uncoil forward toward tender tips. Liquids wash embryotic growth nubs, skins push forward and fill the space between the fingers. Sensations change, and Doris can feel salinity and electric currents in new, exhilarating ways. She moves forward.

Doris’ speed doubles, the newly webbed fingers more adept at pushing her toward the shadows that she can now see, first a line of grey, and then differentiated, one by one, a long column of shapes stretched out below the monstrous bridge. Which one?

A last moment of doubt runs through Doris, a hesitation. She is drawn forward—but is it right? Is this the call? The doubt vanishes in a final wave of hormones. There—a copper flash in the line, a hammer raised high, skeletal mélange of bones and weeds, a arcing up, triumphant. She hones in. That one. That one. Let it be the one.


Doris arrives. Her face is gone now, swept aside and upward, replaced by a silvery caul. The exultation of arrival engulfs the last fragments of memory, of Atlantic beaches, of river dates and diving expeditions. For one moment, what remains of her finger touches a thin silver band, half worked through the spongy remnant of bone.

Collision.

The aquamarine jewel flashes from the deep, a small blue-silver edge shoots out of the water, toward the red steel ropes above. It reflects, for a second, off a red Prius’s windshield. The driver does not notice, lost in the contemplation of the smooth sea. A kestrel notices, circling through the steel ropes that striate the sky, and adjusts his flight.

“Lover,” someone thinks, a she in a moment of now. “Lover,” someone replies, a he in a moment of now. The ring loosens, and drifts down toward the ocean floor, to the clearing that forms the terminus of the long road. The silver settles, winks, and vanishes in the folds of an old work boot, a skeleton of leather and metal hobnails.


© 2016, Petra Kuppers

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