The clam resists me. I’m kneeling on the rippled shore, thighs dark-gray with wet sand. I’ve dug three feet deep already. The mollusc still burrows farther down. I lean forward; the mud swallows my arm with one eager gulp, but my fingers have the shell-clad body in a tight grip — I know it can’t be pulled out by the beefy stalk. We tug. Neither of us is prepared to give in.
Dense fog whirls over the water. The mountain range on the other side of the strait is hidden, except for a few snow-covered peeks. Incoming waves send icy spume my way. The water is rising. Its rumbling surge competes with the squabble of the gulls touching down on a giant squid beached at the north end of the cove.
My arm tingles. I can’t let the clam get deeper. I’m already lying on my side, shoulder sinking in. The silt smacks my cheek — a chilly, slobbering kiss. I breathe deeply and jerk my body upward. I’m not keen on eating mud.
The mollusc’s flesh slackens. Our battle is over. I fling the clam onto the shore; it hits the pebbles with a sigh of surrender. It’s a big one, the tube as thick and long as my calf. The morning sun highlights its paleness: a chunk of quivering flesh — ugly as a secret revealed by force. I toss it into the bucket. Five large clams, a decent haul.
I look for Nijuch and see him toddling on the dry part of the beach about fifty yards away from me, close to the spot where the metal hood of a truck skeleton pokes out of the sand. He chortles while kicking his boots against the round part of a kelp stipe as if it were a ball.
At the other side of the bay, Goram charges toward the shrieking gulls, sending them into the air, and sniffs at the squid head before he rips off a tentacle and wolfs it down.
Standing here, its sand all over my naked body, I already miss this place. The vastness, the freedom. These past five days have flown by — as always. Each hour busy. Each minute relished. Each second clung to. A drop of water on parched plains, evaporated before it even hits the ground.
I turn and run into the waves. They murmur. They plead. Why don’t you stay? Pretend the life inland does not exist. Pretend nobody waits for you.
While the surf rinses me, I imagine raising Nijuch at the coast.
The wind picks up and prickles on my wet skin. I return to my bucket and bundle of clothes, and rub myself down with my jacket before I slip into pants and tunic. Would they come for us? Drag us back? It’s fruitless to mull over the what-ifs; we have to go back tomorrow.
Time for breakfast now. I slap a clam onto a small boulder. My knife severs both shells from the meat. I skin and trim the mollusc, and wash it in the waves slopping over the rock. As I cut off thin, translucent slices, they ruffle and curl. Their taste is crisp and briny, like a congealed sea breeze. I gaze at the lifting fog and chew.
After I’m satisfied, I slice a batch of clam meat for Nijuch. When I look for him again, he sits hunched over by the entrance of the small cave in the bluff, his nose meeting the sand, lips around his left big toe, sucking. I hate when he does that. “Use your thumbs,” I want to holler, but don’t. His arms are tied up in the overall, as if frozen in a self-embrace. It’s not his fault.
He does not take notice of me as I stuff the prepared meat in my pants pocket, pick up the clam bucket and walk over to him. Nijuch doesn’t care for the provisions of the sea. I force him to eat shellfish whenever possible, but he defies my efforts much like the clam, though with more success. Mother Bjell and Irissy cannot be deterred from feeding him pulaa, and he loves it no matter which of its many loathsome varieties they have prepared.
I let go of the bucket and bend down. My fingers stroke Nijuch’s neck, still delicate and smooth, while I pull his foot away from his face. I owe him; he has not given me away. The dark hair falling over his shoulders is like mine: thick, long tufts, as gray and glossy as the silt. Our eyes shine with the bright turquoise of a breaker wave. Even the speckles on his skin mirror my swirling patterns, silvery dabs on muted amber. Will he also have the small gap between his front teeth? Only time can tell. He’s teething late, and I’m thankful for it.
Nijuch shifts his head and glances up at me, red foam in the corners of his mouth. He has cut himself again.
“Haven’t I told you to be careful,” I say. His feet try to crawl under his belly to hide from me, but I grab his ankles and examine the damage: a slash across the back of his left big toe.
I slap his thigh hard and haul him to the nearest tidal pool to clean the wound. Nijuch knows not to touch jelly fish and he’s warned about taking off his shoes. But he has gotten crafty at loosening the laces with his tongue.
He shrieks as the briny water stings his injured flesh. I wash both feet and tie them into his boots before I scoop him into my arms. His legs wiggle around my waist, the closest I get to a hug from my son. Tears stream down his cheek. I lick them off despite the nauseating sweetness that permeates their ocean flavour.
I reach into my pocket for the clam slices, put them into my mouth and chew.
Nijuch’s face contorts — he knows what’s coming.
I spit the mush into my palm. “Open up!”
He twists. We drop to the ground. Kneeling in front of him, I grasp his jaw and shove the clam pulp into his mouth. “Come on. Swallow!”
He manages to spit out half, but the rest goes down. I repeat until we’re both fed up. Exhausted, we keep sitting in the sand, Nijuch on my lap, his face buried against my chest, swaying to the rhythm of the surf pounding the shore. I hum for him the tunes of Siegle, the songs of the forgotten cities my mother taught me, while I stare into the white whirls over the water, bemoaning that he will never know her voice, that he no longer desires my milk, that he can’t lift his hands to touch my face.
My lips caress his soft neck. That he will grow up to hate me.
The sun climbs higher, devouring the haze. Across the sound, the mountains menace the sky, their sharp-edged tops like blades drawn blank. Gusts still whip the water, whitecaps frothing on the churned blue. The tide thrusts toward us, its salty spray a frigid blessing.
We have to go and pack up.
I whistle. Goram darts over, wet and happy, another tentacle dangling from his fangs. He shakes his body and spatters us with ocean, sand and squid.
I get up, weave the carrying straps through Nijuch’s vest flaps, and pull the hood over his face. When I fasten him onto my back, he flails like a beetle in distress. I tie the bucket to my belt, slip on my gloves, and set out to climb the cliff.
The small path by the cave is steep and narrow, overgrown by thorny shrubs and wild fennel, almost indiscernible for the eyes of strangers. Though, there is no need for concealment. Nobody comes here but me. This part of the coast has no attractions; people wouldn’t waste half a day’s travel on beaches without booty. The mud flats continue to yield and are much more accessible. The plantation’s train route ends only five miles away from the old harbour.
The reddish clay, still saturated with the morning fog’s moisture, squelches under my feet. Nijuch keeps wiggling. Repeatedly, his left heel knocks into the bucket dangling at my thigh, sounding out a hollow, resentful bong.
Goram squeezes past me. His claws find easy grip in the slippery ground, and he speeds into the tunnel of briers, upward, out of my sight. I grab onto branches, careful where I place my steps, and pull myself higher and higher. Through the thick leather of the gloves, my palms sense the brambles’ spikes.