05 March, 2009
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: REBUILDING THE HOUSE
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
In the night, a dream, in the dream, a woman, his bride-to-be. It is an arranged marriage, an agreement between both sides of the family, his and hers. There is much protocol and ceremony involved. They have taken several ceremonial walks together through a sunlit garden, hanging with purple flowers and populated by a profusion of birds. He has never seen her naked, and he steals glances at her, wondering what she looks like naked, under her many layers of colorful, ceremonial clothing. Her face is pretty. She is shy, almost timid. They talk of inconsequential things, but underneath it all he can sense her excitement, her anticipation at their coming union. He can feel it too. It creates a tender presence at his physical core as he moves through the other locales of the dream world. It is like nothing he has ever felt for another person before. The dream repeats itself through the night, and when he wakes in the morning, before he opens his eyes and remembers who he is, he feels the tender presence of his bride-to-be, glowing, fading in his physical core.
There’s a morning chill and the blankets are damp from the blowing mist, and from the damp that percolates up through the sand as the night shifts into day. Wilbo stirs with discomfort. His eyes are sore and swollen and the lids are sealed together with crusty deposits of salt. There’s sand in his hair, and tiny sand crabs are sporting across the mattress and down the back of his shirt. He’s spent the night in his clothes, wrapped like a burrito in salt-stained blankets with no pillow. He’s not ready for the day, but he appears to be awake.
The events of the night come back to him one by one. They come to him in the form of a broken orange crate, lying sideways, spilling out its contents of pencils and crayons and notebooks; a toothbrush sticking upright out of the sand like a strange bristly flag; a single, small woman’s red sandal hanging by a strap over a nub on the back of the sitting log. Directly after he sees the sandal, he sees the woman, sitting on the log with her back to him, staring out at the sea.
It’s Claudia! is his first thought, but his second thought surprises him.
God, I hope it’s not Claudia!
But it isn’t Claudia. It’s a short, rounded woman with soft, slumped shoulders. She has a heavy black cloak pulled around her shoulders and she’s wearing a floppy hat lined with black lace and laden with buttons and bows and pockets with tiny tools in them. She knows he’s awake. She speaks without turning.
“Quite a work you’ve got here, Wilbo, Do you know the name of the artist?”
Wilbo sits up groggily. With nothing but his hands to clear his face, he clears his face with his hands, raking his tear ducts with his fingers, breaking the flakes of tears and sleep.
“Well, it wasn’t me, anyhow.” he answers.
“No, I can tell. This isn’t your style.”
Wilbo coughs and slaps his hands together and slaps his hands against his chest. He rolls over to his hands and knees, thinking to get to his feet, but no, it’s not quite time to get to his feet. He rolls back onto the mattress.
“What on earth brings you down here at this ungodly hour of the morning, Doralina?”
“I’m a morning person. I’ve been up for hours. The only problem is all my friends are night people. And my work, of course. I have to do most of my work at night. It makes for a hard life. I must burn my candle at both ends.”
She turns to look at him then. The effect is startling. The lace that fringes her hat also extends down in front like a sort of visor, partially covering her eyes. It attaches to the hat on the right with a small pink silk rose.
“You know, it’s true what they say,” she tells him. He waits for her to tell him what it is they say, but she doesn’t tell him. So he asks her.
“What do they say, Doralina?”
“No man is a grunion, you know what I mean. You know the grunion, the fish that comes up out of the water to spawn in the sand. You don’t have to do that, you know. Not when you’ve got friends. When you’ve got friends, you’ve got connections. Everything is interconnected.”
Wilbo works this over for awhile. It’s a typical example of Doralina Steindl-Klas reasoning.
“I think you mean no man is an island, then.” he says. “ That’s what they usually say. They don’t usually say no man is a grunion. Maybe sometimes they do.”
“Well, that’s why I said it. It’s something that needs to be said. On account of everybody at the Dogfish. It’s been four nights now, and you haven’t made an appearance, not since that night that your brother showed up. So we got together and sent out a search party. That was Carl Rogers, search party number one. But Carl never came back. So here I am, search party number two and look at this place! I come back and you’re lying in the sand and look at this place! What’s going on here, old man? What happened to this place? Was there a fight? Did you get in a fight with Carl? What did you do with Carl, Wilbo?”
Wilbo manages to get to his feet. “Whoa! Whoa! Slow down, Doralina! Don’t jump to conclusions. I don’t know what happened to Carl. He was just here the other night and we talked for a while. He drank some wine, then he left, that’s all. Last night when I came home… from work, I just found the place looking like this. I have an idea who did it, though. I have a pretty good suspicion.”
Alerted that Wilbo is standing, Doralina stands too, and turns to face him. She is oddly but ruggedly dressed. She’s wearing a long black multi-pleated skirt, tied with a belt from which dangles an array of items, seashells and small scissors, a hole-punch, several paint brushes, a magnifying glass, a tiny ball peen hammer. Over the skirt she wears a bulky lavender sweatshirt printed with a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi sitting at a spinning wheel over the slogan, TO WORK IS TO LIVE.
She turns from Wilbo and starts rummaging through the rubble. “You need some coffee. I brought a couple of pannini rolls. We have to get your blood flowing again. Then we can rebuild.”
Wilbo knows Doralina well. He knows that Doralina’s actions have a momentum behind them, like that of a locomotive on a downhill slope. There’s really no point in getting in her way, and there’s really no harm in getting out of her way. He knows this about Doralina. Doralina’s actions always lead to something good. Briefly reasoning through all this, he sits on the bench and waits to see what she will do.
First she finds his camp stove under a scrub of sage by the rocks. It’s a bit dented but she pumps it up and strikes a match that she extracts from a tin tied to her belt. Poof!
She has a flame, a big flame at first- it almost singes the fringe on her shawl. But she fiddles with the knobs and manages to get it down to a nice robust blue glow.
Miraculously she locates a plastic jug of water and a saucepan, not that far away, and there’s an unbroken mug, full of sand yes, but unbroken. She rinses it out with the water. She doesn’t have to look for the coffee. She has a vial of strong espresso paste tied to her belt. She talks a continuous stream of consciousness while completing these tasks.
“You know what they always say, old man. It’s better to forgive than to receive. That’s why the sap is always flowing in the redwood trees. One big sequoia can produce five hundred pounds of wood in a year. You know the Indians used to set the forests on fire when they got too thick, and they knew what they were doing. No one ever accuses the Indians of not loving the trees. That’s what you’ve got to do, old man. Forgive and rebuild, forgive and rebuild. The trees that come out of the fire are stronger and healthier than the ones that burn. They knew what they were doing, those Indians. Forgive and rebuild.”
So Wilbo and Doralina sit together on the log, drinking strong espresso and eating pannini rolls and considering the task ahead, forgiving and rebuilding.
Doralina stares out at the waves. “What do you see out there, old man?” she asks.
“I see waves. Waves coming in, waves going out.”
“Yeah, but what about the waves? What’s special about those waves?”
Wilbo isn’t sure what she’s getting at. “I don’t know,” he says, “They speak French, maybe?”
Ah!” she throws up her hands. “I can’t believe it! You sit here on this bench every night and you look out on those waves and you don’t notice anything. Tell me, this, if you can. What phase was the moon in last night?”
“I don’t know.” He scratches his head. “It was dark.”
“Well, of course it was dark! That’s because there was no moon last night. It’s the new moon. Do you know what that means? No, you probably don’t.”
Wilbo is humbled into avoiding the number of wisecracks he might offer in response to her question.
No, I probably don’t.” he says simply.
“It’s the spring tide. The lowest tide of the month. There will be things out there that haven’t been uncovered in a long, long time. This is a fortuitous event, old man. You need stuff to rebuild your house, and there’s going to be lots of stuff out there. Fortuitous, old man.”
Not long after that, before the tides can turn, with a jolt of caffeine racing through their veins and the sun burning off the morning fog, they set out for the intertidal zone to look for what the sea has left behind for them in its romantic pursuit of the moon.
Doralina explains the time frame of their work. “We have to do all our gathering first,” she tells him, “While we still can. After that, we can build.”
Between the beach and the twin arched rocks that provide a playground for sea lions and a nesting ground for gulls and cormorants, stretches a bed of smaller rocks, some jagged, some round and smooth, all riddled with fissures and hollowed-out punch bowls, blow holes, periscopes. At high tide these rocks are completely submerged. At neap tide they make brief appearances between the waves, and people mistake them for mermaids or sea serpents. Only at the lowest of low spring tides do they appear as they do today, not only fully visible but mostly dry, spread out like piles of dog food rendered in the style of a Japanese water color. There’s a trend of slant to these rocks- they could be the stern end of a great ocean liner sinking, most of its bulk already below the sand. Geologists would cite this as proof of a great cataclysmic upshift of the earth along the tectonic plates in some primeval era before the last ice age.
But Wilbo and Doralina are not geologists, at least not today. Today they are beachcombers, scouring the shore for what on any other day would be considered refuse, flotsam and jetsam. Today there will be treasures, rendered treasure-like by a need: To rebuild. To forgive and rebuild…
Doralina has taken off her hat. She’s brought other things with her besides just some pannini rolls and the collection of tools she wears around her waist. In fact, she’s brought a whole duffel bag full of things, and now it lies stashed in the shade behind the sitting bench. These are the tools of her trade, she explains to Wilbo. She has to carry them with her everywhere she goes.
“You never know when the muse might strike.” she tells him.
From the duffel bag she has taken only one thing with her out to the tide pools. It’s another bag- a bag within a bag- this one an old burlap gunny sack sporting a picture of a potato-man dressed like a beatnik with a goatee and a beret, and the words IDAHO’S HIPPEST POTATOES. She will use this to gather the harvest on several trips out to the rocks and back to the house while the tide holds out.
Everything interests her. The moment they step out onto the rocks she starts turning over boulders and poking about in the cracks with a stick. She finds some dry, brittle starfish bodies with no life in them, and these she tosses into the sack. She selects certain pieces of driftwood for their size and smoothness and special curve. She collects some fish net and some kite string still wound on a wooden spool and a few broken sand dollar shells. There are no whole sand dollars.
Layers of seaweed are draped over the rocks as neatly as if they were a harvest set out to dry by some indigenous tribe. They lie in rainbow bands of color, the first being the feathery green algaes, followed by the leafy reds, the dulse and carrageen, then at last, near the wave line, the giant brown kelps and oarweeds with their bulbous float bladders and broad serrated fronds. Doralina collects a few of the reds but she’s especially interested in the kelps, rolling up long ropes in bundles as big as channel markers and stuffing them into the bulging sack.
“You gotta pick things up, old man,” she exhorts him. “You’re not picking anything up. There’s no rules. Just pick up anything that has beauty for you.”
Wilbo is barefoot. They are both barefoot, but Wilbo seems to feel his barefootedness more than Doralina. The rocks are covered with the calcified skeletons of old barnacles and their sharp edges torment his tender feet. Doralina scrambles ahead of him. Her voluminous skirts seem to give her extra buoyancy. She reaches the edge of the first tide pool and beckons with her hand.
“Lots of life here, old boy,” she says. “You need to come and see.”
Wilbo hobbles to the rock where she squats and there he sinks to his knees and leans far over until his eyes grow accustomed to the shadowy depths of the pool.
It’s a classic tide pool. All the components are there. It could have been arranged by marine biologists and built into an aquarium tank to demonstrate to schoolchildren what a tide pool should look like. The walls are white with calcium and the bottom is variegated with a deep lush carpet of sea greens, sponges and wracks and coral weeds. Three or four starfish saunter about. One holds up its light-sensitive tentacles to see the way as it searches for a safe, shady crevice. Another drifts as it hangs from the underside of a rock from perhaps one single tube foot. Above the water line the anemones are closed, like slimy green buttons, but underwater they explode into full bloom of red and blue and pink, tentacles waving, beckoning. Spiky purple urchins hide out in urchin-shaped hollows at rock bottom. Schools of tiny silver fish dart about and glisten in the penetrating rays of the sun. The pinchers of hidden crabs poke out of cracks and wave greetings. The wise crabs do not appear.
After awhile, rested and breathing normally, Wilbo begins to review certain ponderings, ideas from the past that return and are freshly nuanced as he stares into the pool. He’s only vaguely aware of Doralina as her stick slowly trawls through the water and the little velvet crabs poke their heads out of their rock houses to see what just passed. A small voice speaks very quietly in a corner of his head, as if a filling in one of his teeth was picking up a faint radio station.
You spend too much time alone, Wilbo. Alone with your thoughts, I mean.
“I had this thought the other day,” he says out loud. “It has to do with the ocean. The shore as the edge between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Inland is outward- the known, the conscious mind, the things we do every day, the stuff we see on TV, you know, the governments and supermarkets and the organized religions. The ocean is the mystery place, the unknown, the unconscious. None of our rules apply there. We can’t understand what goes on there using the kind of thinking we apply to the mainland. Then there’s the shore. That’s the place where the two meet. The shore is the place of dreams and art and music and dance, the place where you do things and you don’t know why you do them, they just come. These creatures we see here because the tide is out. They just prove my theory. These creatures are from the dream world.”
Doralina is clearly very pleased with this idea. She lets her stick lie still in the pool where it is quickly surrounded by a posse of small shrimp, and her face settles into a deep and faraway smile which she holds for a long, long time.
“It was fortuitous, old man,” she says finally. “It was time. Your house was due to be rebuilt. You can thank the artist who tore it down. Let’s not stop. The tide will soon change.” She’s on her feet and hoisting the bulging bag up over her shoulders.
They make four trips to and from the tide pools, each time lugging a sack heavy with their numinous catch, before they first notice the change. They’re at the outermost edge of the pools, in the brown bladder kelp zone just before the narrow channel between the tide pools and the arched rocks. They’re working at prying loose a common limpet from a bed of green whelks when out of nowhere a noisy quarrelsome wave comes splashing up through a blowhole and explodes into a foamy white fan, drenching the dry sunny rocks, and the two unsuspecting beachcombers.
Doralina coughs and sputters and shakes the salty water out of her hair.
“That’s it,” she says, “The window is closing. Hey, there’s one more place we haven’t tried yet. The cape. It might still be dry there. Let’s hurry and get there while we still can.”
Impelled by a sense of urgency they haul their last sackful back to the house and set out for the cape. This cape is the elbow of the large madrone-covered shoulder of earth and rock that encloses the small, secluded beach where Wilbo lives. On most days this rocky outcropping is a blustery playground for the elements, where forceful waves come rolling in from both directions, carving faces and forms in the cliffs and gouging out deep overhanging caves where the octopuses hide.
Doralina is only partly right in predicting that the cape will be dry in this low spring tide. When they come in sight of the point a big wave has just receded. The sand around the point is passable but glistening wet. Out on the wet sand, half-buried and dangerously close to the breakers there is something- some large, boxlike object with rounded edges. Decayed and crusty, it could be manmade, it could be natural, it’s hard to tell.
“Hey! What’s that?” cries Doralina. “Let’s go get it!” She starts running but another wave rolls in and she has to step back and wait. This one’s not as big as the last one, it doesn’t reach the rocks, but it covers the object. As it recedes it breaks off a small corner and carries it out to sea.
Doralina rushes forward with Wilbo at her heels. When she reaches the object she gives it a shove and topples it out of its lodging in the sand. Even up close it’s not immediately clear what it is. It’s flat and square and it’s completely covered with barnacles, live barnacles and the empty chalky shells of many generations of barnacles. A few small decay holes reveal a hollow center. It’s about the size and shape of a radiator from a small automobile, and for good reason. It is a radiator from a small automobile. The barnacles have filled every convolution of the metal grill, but the giveaway clue is the pressure cap, still snugly secured.
There’s a story here, thinks Wilbo.
“You want this!” Doralina cries. “Let’s get it out before the next wave!”
She tries to pick it up but its too heavy. Wilbo takes the other end and they lift it off the sand. It’s heavy because it’s full of water. As they stand there water gushes out of a hundred hidden holes and the radiator slowly lightens in their hands. But before they can move the next wave hits and they’re standing knee-deep in the ocean.
“Just walk!” Doralina orders. They drag the radiator to dry land, and then fall down laughing.
“You need this in your house!” Doralina howls while catching her breath. “It’s so… symbolic!”
Then she glances up at the rocks and sand, and the shifting waves. “Come on, there’s more stuff up there! No time to lose!” And she’s up and off, with Wilbo following. Her enthusiasm is childlike and contagious. She clambers up on the shelf above the waves where there are a few pools, a few starfish. But she’s looking for something else. She finds some short boards, too young to be driftwood, printed with letters of the Russian alphabet. She finds some unbroken brown bottles with wave-smoothed necks. One is still corked. She finds one whole Austin Healy hubcap.
Then at the very tip of the cape they come across two wooden oars, floating in a tide pool, tangled in kelp. Wilbo gets to them first. He pulls off the seaweed as if he is unwrapping a birthday present. There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re nicked and gray with weathering but they’re completely intact and fully usable.
“You know what that means, don’t you?” Doralina says confidently. “Where there’s oars, there’s a boat.” She hops down from the pool and approaches the edge of the cliff where the rock drops into the sea. There she crouches and crawls forward cautiously to peer over the ledge.
“Yep! Just as I thought. There’s a boat.”
The boat is wedged in a narrow fissure in the rock, upside down and bow side in. It’s just a little wooden rowboat, badly battered, with its stern end bobbing on the water. It’s about a six foot drop and it looks like the ocean has arrived for keeps, but then even as they watch, the waves inhale and draw back and the boat drops and bumps on the sand with a moist clunk.
“Jump, Wilbo!” Doralina cries.
Without a thought, Wilbo jumps, and he is surprised by the grace of his landing. No time to lose! He turns, grasps the oarlocks and gives a sharp tug on the boat. It dislodges easier than he thought and he stumbles backwards onto his butt.
No time to lose! He gets up quickly, grabs the boat and flips it over, right side up. Just in time, the wave hits. This one’s a big one. It lifts the boat up and hurls it at the rocks. Fortunately Wilbo’s on the other side or he would be the unwitting pate’ in a boat rock sandwich. He clenches his teeth as the boat strikes and the wave covers his head. A moment later he can feel the swift acceleration of the outflow, like the beginning of a thrill ride, as the ocean tries to reclaim what was taken from it by the rocks.
“Just get in!” Doralina cries from the cliff above.
Not a bad idea, he thinks, but not easy. With considerable effort he manages to pull himself up parallel with the boat and then he rolls over into it, landing on his back. The first thing he sees is a framed picture of Doralina, standing on the rock, holding the oars.
“Here’s the oars!” she cries, then there’s a splash, then another splash, on either side of the boat.
Eventually he gets the oars, after much lunging and tipping. This is not what he usually does for a living. By the time he has the oars threaded through the oarlocks Doralina has been reduced to a stick figure on the distant shoreline and the boat has been transported out well past the breakers. But it’s not hard to bring her in. With just a few tugs he catches an incoming current and after that he can ride the waves as they rise and fall, obeying the landward urge.
Doralina is waiting on the sand when he arrives. Her skirts are soaked but she doesn’t care. She grabs the bow and pulls him in as the last wave coughs up the boat onto the beach.
“Well done, Captain! Welcome to America!”
The next job is dragging the boat to the house, but not just the boat. There’s the radiator. Don’t forget the radiator! Then of course there’s the bag, all the stuff they picked up on the rocks before they found the boat. The solution is simple. With the boat upright, they toss the oars and the radiator and the gunny sack inside and then, each grabbing an oarlock they drag the boat all the way back to the house, cutting a long sandy wake that beachcombers will speculate over until the next high tide.
After that they are hungry and there’s no more food in Doralina’s knapsack, so they leave their precious booty in piles around the ruins of the house and trudge the distance of the trail, over the shoulder, through the tunnel, across the public beach, through the notch, and onto the boardwalk, specifically, to Mac’s Burger Shack where Mac fries them up two juicy cheeseburgers smothered in onions and served on his private reserve of Kaiser rolls, gratis complimentis. He also brings out Wilbo’s concertina and sketch book, still stashed behind the counter.
Doralina leans over as if she’s going to tell Mac a secret, but she speaks in loud, clear tones.
“Big party at Wilbo’s tonight,” she says. “It’s a housewarming. He’s getting a new house. Spread the word. And tell everybody to bring a gift.”
On the way to the beach, Wilbo says, “Doralina, you take great liberties with my lifestyle. What if I don’t want a party tonight?”
“Oh, you want a party, Wilbo. You know you do.” she replies.
He smiles and doesn’t say a thing until they get back to the house. Of course she’s right, he’s thinking. A party is exactly what he wants.
So they spend the afternoon rebuilding the house. They start by classifying all the building materials and sorting them into piles, including the salvageable items from the ruins, most of the driftwood, the furniture, the unbroken dishes, and even some of the broken ones.
The first layer is the walls. The walls of the new house take on a slightly different shape than the old walls. Following the curve of selected pieces of driftwood, they arch inland toward the rocky cliffs, then take a sharp outward sway to the sea, culminating in a sort of open chimney through which Wilbo will be able to see a patch of the night sky as he lies on his back in the bed.
“The full moon will pass right through that opening,” she informs him, “So will the crescent Venus.”
Doralina opens her knapsack and spills out the contents. She has hammers and saws and nails and screws of all sizes. She has a battery-powered electric screwdriver. She has duct tape and masking tape and black and green electrical tape. She has protractors and compasses and float levels and plumb bobs. She has a carpenter’s square and another tool that must have once been a square but has been forged and melded into a series of curving angles. Almost every item in her bag she uses at least once in the construction process.
The radiator is installed in one of the window openings where the glass was broken out. It acts somewhat like a radiator, the cool winds breathing through its barnacle-encrusted vanes. Having removed the pressure cap they fill the opening with a garland of blue California lilacs. The blossoms splay out like a Japanese fan against the rough wood wall. The Austin-Healy hubcap replaces the bicycle wheel in the round window frame, but first Doralina takes a pair of tin snips and cuts it into a design patterned after the rose window in the cathedral at Chartres. Into each opening she fixes a piece of colored cellophane from a package in the knapsack.
“You have to rearrange the furniture,” she tells him. “Nothing should go back as it was. What’s the point of change if it’s not complete?”
The bed is placed along the south wall where the moon-and-Venus port is visible from its headspace. The cupboards are rebuilt from salvaged boards on the wall opposite from where they used to be. A whole new set of bookshelves is fashioned from the planks with the Russian letters and hangs by twine from the driftwood nubs over the bed. The dresser, the nightstand and the wall mirror all find new homes.
With the walls rebuilt and the furniture in place the next step is to bring everything back in, all the bits and pieces- they decide that nothing will be thrown away, all the broken pottery and shards of window glass and splintered wood will be brought back in and somehow woven into the fabric of the house, mortared into the cracks with mud, wedged into the chinks and cubbyholes or strung on twine and suspended from the ceiling as mobiles.
As a crowning touch, the outside of the house is covered entirely in seaweed. They start with the heavy brown kelps, layering it thickly in crisscrossed patterns, followed by the fluffy green algae and feathery red dulse which give the odd effect that the house is a single organism in bloom, or that it is simply out of focus when viewed from a certain distance.
“It will stink after a few weeks,” she tells him, “But be patient. The stink will pass.”
From a distance they stand and admire their work. The house does look different. It looks like a sod house, or a haystack, or a small Native American sweat lodge. The sun is going down now and the shadows are deepening. The house itself casts a new shadow on the cliffs behind it. It looks like an open hand. A pair of black oystercatchers hop down from the rocks. Fluffing their feathers, they peer inquisitively into the open cabin door.
“We did good, old man.” Doralina says.
Wilbo stands and smiles but doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t know what to say. He’s feeling good but he’s also feeling hungry and tense, expectant, wanting something- food, fun, adventure- something.
Suddenly there are voices, many of them, in the distance.
Up at the shoulder of the cape, through the tunnel, people are arriving, lots of people. They are talking, the voices far away but light and happy. They are carrying things and they are colorfully dressed.
The party is about to begin.