By Robert L. Fouch
We chose mystery, my son and I.
Wriggling beneath us in the shallow ocean water was a wormlike creature, long and brown and many legged, wrapped around an algae-covered stone in the shadow of the Montauk Point Lighthouse.
“What is it, Daddy?” my 8-year-old asked.
“I don’t know. An eel maybe? But I don’t think eels have legs.” Just a shell’s throw from us, the waves crashed, unrelenting against the jagged, jutting shoreline. But where we stood, on rocks protruding from the ocean like polished skulls, was a pool of calm, the water around us perhaps left by the receding tide. Maybe if we returned in the evening, or late that night, the water the creature inhabited would be deeper, more turbulent. Again, such things were a mystery to me, a landlubber, a native of a state heaving with ancient mountains, where from the top of even the highest peak no oceans could possibly be seen. I breathed in the salted air, the sensation forever foreign to me. Slipping from a stone, I felt the saltwater seep into my sneakers. I thought ahead to squishy regret, when we would tour the lighthouse and climb its 137 winding stairs and my wet socks would squeak and rub miserably against the soles of my feet. I didn’t mind. I wanted all of this for my son. This mystery.
Tylerreached down as if to pick the creature up and I gently grabbed his shoulder. “He’s hurt.” And I pointed to the damage. “Guts,” I said, for lack of a better term, oozing ever so slightly from a wound on its back, as toothpaste might out of an open tube.Tylernodded and we watched the creature slither off on its centipede legs. We moved on, too, stepping carefully on slick stones, farther out into the shallow water, my wife watching vigilant on the beach. Her voice crashed against us like the waves on the shore. “Be careful!” I nodded and waved and watched my son, heedless, leap fearlessly from stone to stone.
“Turn over some rocks,” I suggested, not sure what we’d find but knowing it would be something elseTylerhad never seen. I thought of my own childhood in those ancient mountains ofWest Virginia, and the hundreds of stones I had overturned in rivers that cut winding paths through the valleys, the crawdads zipping backward like missiles fired from within the clouds of stirred-up silt. I would catch the crawdads, their pinchers waving harmlessly, and I’d dare myself to let them clamp down on my other hand. It always hurt, but just a little, and it seemed only fair to let the crawdads exact some revenge. I thought of the salamanders I’d catch along the streams that fed the rivers, the swirling tadpoles that would some day miraculously sprout legs and turn into a different creature altogether if they survived long enough, the sunfish and bass and trout and occasionally even catfish that we’d pull from the rivers.
I thought about how I did all of those things alone, or with only my younger brother, or our dog Boomer, the collie-mix mutt I named after the famous TV pooch, despite my mother’s gentle protestations that Boomer was a boy and ours was a girl. “Mom! We’re going to the woods!” we would yell, and Boomer would lose her mind, racing from us to the door, back to us and to the door, us to the door, us to the door, running with tongue lolled for as long as we stood watching, laughing somewhat cruelly, until at last we’d open the door and she’d go tearing through the yard and down the hill toward the woods and adventure. On the rare occasion my brother and I wanted to go without her, we would whisper to our mother, “We’re going to the W-O-O-D-S,” until, after just a couple of times, Boomer figured us out – who knew dogs could spell? – and would lose her mind all over again. We wouldn’t have the heart to leave her behind.
My brother and I, we did all this alone. We plunged through the underbrush of the woods, turned over the stones in the river, caught minnows and crawdads and salamanders with no adults standing nearby to shout, “Be careful!” I mourned for my son that he would never experience such a thing, never know such freedom. Different generation, different place, different everything. Only a fool would leave an 8-year-old alone in these scary times. And where in his hometown ofValley Streamcould he possibly explore anyway? Surely not the depressing looking “stream” that flowed underMill Road. Maybe the nearby park, with its tiny lake filled with tiny fish? I suppose, but the park is surrounded by homes, with families cooking out in their backyards, music blaring, children squealing. Cars can always be heard on nearby streets, and planes landing at nearby JFK roar ceaselessly overhead. And the lake itself is surrounded by a chain-link fence. How can you explore a place so exhaustively inhabited? How can you possibly find adventure in a place so thoroughly known?