The Storyteller: Slipping under

The water pulled at my body, dragging me under, the sandy shore giving way to emptiness below. I’d tied myself to my friend with a rope — I was the better swimmer — but now I couldn’t see him in the churning water where his saucer-plate eyes had disappeared. Struggling against the current, I frantically kicked my legs and clawed with my arms. As I flailed, the rope pulsated and pulled me downward. I thought, “This is how it happens — this is how I die.”

Earlier that day we had joined a few other St. Helena families for a day out at the coast. It was fall and the weather had turned cooler. A recent rain had brought with it the familiar autumnal smells of wet earth, fermenting grape pumice and the smoky aroma of burning piles of the summer’s discarded grapevines. The idea was to have a picnic near Jenner at a small cove called Russian Gulch, where we’d have a bonfire, roast hot dogs and spend the day combing the beach for sea life, shells and colorful rocks worn smooth by the back-and-forth movement of the waves.

“When we get there I’ll take you to the tidal pools,” I’d said to my friend Chad, who had ridden over in our car instead of his parents’ car.

What I didn’t know was that because of the recent rains what had normally been a small stream was now a raging torrent that cut directly through the southern end of the isolated cove’s beach. It blocked a collection of undisturbed tidal pools, each with a carpet of alien-looking neon-green sea anemones, sandpaper-rough purple sea stars and iridescent clumps of burgundy seaweed along with the occasional but greatly welcomed random sea creature.

But at that moment, in the car, not knowing we’d be blocked, I continued to describe the tidal pools.

“In the cracks there are hundreds of crabs,” I said, “And I even found a shark’s tooth once.”

It was true that I’d found a rock that looked a lot like a shark’s tooth during a previous year’s exploration, but in my mind it had morphed into the actual dentine of a Great White.

“Is it the tooth of a Great White?” he asked.

I nodded slowly.

“Yes, and that’s why we don’t want to get out into the waves too deep,” I said. “They wait there close to shore hoping for kids to just walk right into their trap.”

I clapped my hands together for effect.

Chad jumped and my mother turned around from the front seat.

“Tim has an overactive imagination,” she said, and then patted Chad’s leg. “There are no sharks waiting to eat kids at the beach. They are waiting to eat seals.”

My mother smiled and turned back around. My dad glanced up into the rear-view mirror and shook his head, smiling.

When we arrived at the unmarked pullout on Highway 1, Chad and I jumped out of the car and ran, hoping to arrive before any others might disturb the tidal pools or provide the unheeded admonition not to get wet, which was akin to saying don’t eat cookie dough when my mother was making chocolate-chip cookies.

To get to the beach first we needed to traverse a section of dense forest on a small, meandering path lined with moss-covered trees and thickets of bramble. The horsetail smelled of something ancient and moist, making me think of dinosaurs and imagine a leaf-munching triceratops lurking around each bend in the trail.

When we reached the beach I was relieved that there were no other visitors but dismayed when I saw a watery gorge cut through the sand by the recent rains.

“What’s the matter?” Chad asked, sensing my disappointment.

“The tidal pools are blocked,” I said, pointing.

“Can’t we just cross the river?” he asked. “It doesn’t look that deep or that wide.”

“My dad has told me they are deeper than they look and faster than they seem after rains,” I said.

Chad didn’t look convinced.

“You’re on the swim team, right?” he said.

I nodded.

“I can’t swim that good,” he said, “but if we could tie ourselves together you could swim across and then pull me over.”

“That sounds like a great idea,” I said. “But where are we going to get the rope?”

“My dad has some in his car,” he said.

Twenty minutes later we’d found the rope, wandered away from the group unnoticed and tied ourselves together around our waists.

Smoke rose from the bonfire in the distance, and the faint smell of briny sea mixed with the aroma of roasting hot dogs, all somehow made more vibrant by the sound of gulls calling from the rocky cliffs overhead.

Chad walked to the edge and then took a few timid steps out into the river.

“See, it’s not that deep,” he said, taking a few more steps.

The rope between us unraveled and began to tug gently at my waist.

“Don’t go any farther — it can drop off really fast,” I said. “The water carves out a crevice in the … ”

Before I could finish my sentence he’d slipped down into the deeper water, thrashing and frantically pulling me toward the river. I leaned back and dug my feet into the sand. The thin rope slipped through my hands and I was pulled forward and dragged into the cold water. I eventually found my footing in the wet sand and pulled on the rope, my body leaning back toward shore, but it was no use. The weight of my friend and the non-relenting rush of water were too much. Seconds before I went under, Chad broke the surface and waved his arms frantically, a gurgling scream escaping from his gaping mouth.

“Sharks,” he howled and then went under again.

What happened next is another story.

Originally published in the Napa Register, September 2018