And then there is the voice of the sand itself—the quick sharp sibilance of a gust of sand blown over a dune created by a sudden shift of the breeze, the all but silent sound of the never ending restless shifting of the individual grains, one over another. —Rachel Carson
We anchored in an uninhabited nook of the Nova Scotia coast where the surf pounds rocks into round gems. Boulders divided into pebbles, small enough to be lifted by the short rough waves and dragged, rumbling, down the steep incline. The resounding percussion could be heard across the harbor, an orchestra of stones.
The four of us, my father, mother, younger brother, and I, furled sails and coiled sheets and halyards in silence, listening to waves of pebbles heave onto the beach, halt, and then, as an afterthought, roll back them into themselves. The rattle shook the bones of my toes. To be heard above it, we had to shout or put our mouths up to each other’s ears.
We’d spent the day in thick fog, moisture condensing on the deck, dripping down from the sails, collecting on our foul-weather gear, strung pearls on exposed strands of our hair. My brother and I stood bow-watch since we had “young” ears. He was six and I was nine. My father’s hearing had been damaged; the machines he designed and tested for a living had erased certain pitches from his audible range. My mother’s ears, she claimed, were just worn out.
We rocked slowly through the gray vapor that muted light and sound. My brother and I tried to fill the silent gray world. Our hands were pruney and cold, as if we’d just gotten out of the bath. We stood side by side on the bowsprit in our bright rubber suits, my brother to port and me to starboard, and sang to the fog: I’m off for the morning train. I’ll cross the ranging main. I’m off to my love with a boxing glove ten thousand miles away. Every few minutes, we paused and listened. Then one of us blew the tin fog horn, one long blast followed by two short. A code: we are under sail. Then we paused and listened for a response—the single blast of a boat under motor, the triple blast of tow-boat, a sudden ripple in the thick, hushed air.
“Is that an engine?”
I cupped my hands behind my ears. “No.”
“I think I hear voices.”
Just last week, we had been surprised by a sailboat in the fog. First, we’d heard the voices of the crew, followed the ghostly apparition of a vessel.
We listened again. Just before the tell-tale gust of warm wind from shore hit us, we identified the sound as waves breaking against rock, the voices we’d heard had been echoes of our own.
Stooping to absorb the rise and fall of the deck beneath me, I scuttled quickly towards the stern, grabbing stays and guard rails for stability as if I were swinging from tree branches, yelling, “LAND! Land off the port bow!” My mother swung the helm to starboard and we rolled safely along the coast, listening to our noise reverberate off the dark shadow of terra firma.
“Well, that’s closer to shore than I wanted to get,” said my mother. “Must be a wicked current.”
Our game changed, my brother and I tried to shout loudly enough to be heard above the collision of water and shore. Our world was devoid of other children, but full of personified objects, imagined friends, and forces embodied with free will.
“Let’s play ball!” I called out, imitating umpires from television.
Play ball, came the return. We grinned, pleased to find playmates.
My brother pitched the next words, and waited for the tinny return.
“Those are some breakers!”
Other times, the ocean drowned what we had to say, and it felt like something had been lost—at least for me, the lone member of the crew who loved to talk. Sound behaves erratically on the water: distant voices seem close at hand, the warning shout just behind you disappears. The vibrations skip across the mirrored surface, travelling in leaps, ricocheting from rocks and cliffs. Or they can be carried off by wind, absorbed by fog, and masked by the rushing of one’s own vessel through water. Ashore, sound had existed to serve the speaker and service the listener. It had properties and rules. At sea, it had a personality—fickle, flighty, without loyalties to its generators. I’d not yet encountered classroom physics, but I was acquainted with myths. Like the sailors in my books, I believed the elements had intentions. Not all of them good.
In the beginning, the year I was six and we first moved aboard, I thought I could bargain with God. (I’d jury-rigged a hodgepodge of superstitions that, in my mind, best explained the conditions of the world. In the process, I established a father deity who ruled over the lesser deities, to whom I spoke directly.) These were not prayers. These were suggestions, a short list of improvements that should be made to the great creation. I believed they were heard, and thoughtfully considered, one by one. It wasn’t wise to make sound less audible in the fog, if we can’t see we should at least be able to hear. Please eliminate mosquitoes. They are annoying and useless. Please let me not be seasick again tomorrow, or ever again. I believed my voice the power to alter the cosmos and sometimes I shouted just to prove that I was present and my presence could not be denied. My parents frowned, and the warning tone—the slow, low drag—was sounded, “Inside voices, please.”
“But we aren’t inside.” We’d moved into the outdoors. We went down into the stuffy cabin only to sleep.
My father was an engineer who’d become obsessed with sailing as an adolescent at summer camp, and had moved aboard his first boat at the age of twenty. My mother, a researcher for Polaroid and an Audubon enthusiast, birded from the foredeck, hailing water fowl in their native tongues. For the most part, they ignored her. My parents understood the physical properties that propelled us: the fierce energy of wind, tides, currents, the variations in atmospheric pressure that produced storms. They had both been raised within the Presbyterian church, though, as adults, they had become atheists. By their logic, experimentation and experience would reveal all answers; there were no secret powers at work.
But we children lived ignorance, and gave up trying to predict the unpredictable for a game of yelling at rocks. None of their knowledge about storms prevented them from happening and little of the way we lived made logical sense. (“Why are your parents building a boat in your backyard? Why are you going to live on the boat? Why are you going into the ocean?” our school friends had asked. We had no answers; we were going because we were told to go.) In the absence of structure—too young for physics class and too removed from society for church—my brother and I manufactured rationales for the behaviors around us. The tides were bored and ill-humored and liked to pull us in the opposite direction of where we were headed for the heck of it. Rogue waves were bullies, jonesing to beat up our poor boat. Finickiest of all were the wind gods: easily insulted, hard to cajole into good humors. They loved to spar and yank my hair this way and that, or fade completely and leave us wallowing in the doldrums. In old books we read that we should whistle for favorable winds, as if we could serenade them in their own tongue.
At sea, the wind was a thief that stole books, hats, anything not lashed down. My father stood on the foredeck, issuing an order, all I could discern were the movement of his mouth.
He shouted. Even so, I couldn’t hear.
“The wind gods stole your words,” I told him later. I meant it literally. He wasn’t pleased. There’d been a job to do, and it hadn’t been done. The responsibility was mine, the disobedience was mine, and had clearly been intentional.
Think before you speak. I can hear him clearly now, as if his mouth were next to my ear. The words return, ricocheting across the surface of time. In my father’s world, the world of Captain Guy, there were no powers stronger than one’s own will.
And yet one stormy morning, after my father and I had tucked the main sail into a double-reef, and the rough sailcloth had bloodied my knuckles, I sneered at the sky like a gangster, “Is that all you got, punk?”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. It’s never wise to piss-off the wind gods,” he chided, alarmed, perhaps, at my reckless defiance of an authority so much larger than my own.
In that summer, when we were six and nine, my brother and I once smuggled our duct-taped walkman aboard. We took turns using it nicely. One afternoon, during my brother’s turn with the tape-deck, my father summoned all hands on deck for a sail change. My brother, seated on the floor of the cockpit, didn’t move.
He didn’t move.
I kicked him and he looked up.
My father took the walk-man off his head and threw it below. “Next time, it goes overboard.” Hearing was an essential part of the hierarchy that kept the ship safe, and a first line of defense when it came to predicting disaster. We stashed the walkman in my locker, fearful that we’d had displeased the gods by shutting out their voices.
Perhaps we had. One windless night not long after, we drifted into a wall of fog near the Grand Banks. The moisture in the air so thick it distorted the noise of a nearby fishing boat. Blind and deaf, we almost plowed into one another. From my bunk below, I could hear the men on the other vessel shouting, my father’s boot-steps crashing across the desk, and the sound of a diesel engine very, very close by. Then suddenly a blinding light—the floodlight from the deck of the other ship—poured through the hatches and portholes. Their engine shuddered into reverse and my father yelled and yelled, and our bow swung away from the light. I pulled my pillow over my head and hoped for the best.
“Fishing boats are getting too quiet,” my father announced the next morning.
My suggestion about the properties of sound in fog had gone unheeded. God had not been listening, or did not understand the problem of sound and fog. But my father did. He found an immediate solution. He bought a radar detector and installed it in the pilot house. My brother and I stared at the screen like it was a movie, a movie in which we were the central protagonists. Our boat was at the center of the black circle and a long green arm swept around and around us like the arm of a clock, revealing other boats, shorelines, and patches of low-hanging storm clouds. An alarm would sound when a bogie crossed the five-mile ring around us. Our games re-organized around the new device, a tool of submarines and military vessels, and our new semi-omnipotence: we could see what was coming before it arrived.
“Enemy ship, two o’clock. Five miles off the starboard bow.”
Our “young ears” were out of a job. We hung around the pilot house, our faces studying the screen until someone ordered us topside. We stopped listening, our skill diminished with each hour on the walkman, each sound of the radar’s alarm.
We cruised in the absence of others whenever possible. Chatter irritated us, or, at least, it irritated my father, a man who believed in efficiency above all things, especially when it came to language. The less said, the better. We lived in one room without doors or partitions. When the boat was at rest, a thing said could be heard anywhere aboard. No private conversations, no secrets, no clandestine activities. At night, my father’s snoring filled the hull. Not even my pillow muted its rasp.
He had told us: Not all children have boats, not all children know how to navigate, or raise sail. Quiet down. Pay attention. You are being given life’s riches. And in many ways, he was right. (I say this having abandoned ship at the age of seventeen deliberately. I say this as someone who lives hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean.) What I miss now are the wealth of small noises, and the long, empty spaces between notes: my mother stepping down into the galley . . . the click of the latch on the food cupboard . . . the squeal of the brass pump over the sink . . . the rhythmic pulse of water into the tea kettle . . . the strike of a match and soft pop and hiss of the propane burner catching the flame. Then a long intermission of rain pattering of on the deck above and wind humming through the rigging, before the tea kettle began to whimper. I didn’t have to look up from my book—everything was as in place, held fast by familiar sounds of ourselves.
Above decks, the mornings were still, ready to shatter. Like an oracle, I tried to interpret the first sound of the day, what the code meant, why the trespass: the cry of an osprey, the snort of a porpoise, lapping wavelets against the hull, a lobster boat puttering in the distance, the tolling of a bell-buoy at the mouth of the harbor. Then I took the scrub-brush and, with the remaining dew and rainwater, scoured the desks with the rasping of bristles.
In Penobscot Bay, my mother purchased a recording by a man from the Audubon Society who had studied the patterns of loon calls and I memorized the translations. The man understood the basic patterns: wails, yodels, tremolos, hoots. The subtle variances in the tone, the intricacies of the language, remained guesswork. The calls contained a range of pitches and sounds that I couldn’t articulate. But when a raft of loons floated past, I could loosely interpret their conversation—the hoots of intimacy, the wail of loneness, the yodel of young males declaring their territory, the tremolo of excitement or aggression. Once, by manipulating the exhibit of real loon-calls on a tape-deck, I seduced a young male with a series of seeking wails and inviting hoots and urgent tremolos. Hello, where are you. I’m alone. The fishing is good here. Why don’t you come over here? Curiosity got the better of him, he abandoned his loonery, swam across the cove and circled the boat, hooting at my proxy, the brazen little loonette, while I rewound and played the track again, hoping I could convince him to circle the boat for another hour. He grew fed up with the impossible game of chase, began trebling huffily, and paddled off.
The rest of the clan kept a distance. Across the cove at night, I heard them calling to each other: I’m hungry. Food! I need a mate. Get away from me! They chorused and caroused, the sound carrying easily across the mile of water. I couldn’t join in. Nor could I ask if they sometimes made sound without thinking, just for the pleasure of it.
Once settled near the beach of tumbling rocks, my father ordered my brother and me into the dinghy with the dog.
“Row for shore and get your shenanigans out.”
As we dropped anchor, my job had been to relay messages from the foredeck to the helm. My big mouth finally put to good use. I imagined I was a spy conveying top-secret information, medaled for bravery. My brother was the enemy and unable to avoid each other we sparred at the slightest provocation.
At sea, my brother and I wore whistles clipped to our life-vests, because, in an emergency, our screams would not be heard. We understood that we lived precariously, and that the rules existed to keep us alive. But we were also children. We loved chaos and clutter and disobedience. At times, the pleasure of expression overruled all else. By the end of the foggy day at sea, my brother and I were two corked bottles, shaken, hissing at the mouth.
We rowed ashore to the rolling-rock beach and scouted out a fair landing, where we wouldn’t be pummeled by stony waves. We hollered at each other and the dog, threw rocks and sticks just for the splash, and sang and sang, unheard. After a while, we went silent, giving way to the noise greater than our own. We collected perfect stones and hurled them into the surf where the rattle and roll would re-shape them. Surely, some conductor was orchestrating this, a lesser god snoring at the bottom of the cove.
We departed wordlessly, our launching ritual, our movements synced. My brother held the rubber dinghy while I boosted the wet dog into the bow. I boarded and pushed off with the oar, while he pushed off from shore and jumped in. He sat to port to port and me to starboard. Then we pulled for home, trying to time the stroke of our respective oars evenly.
Later that summer, the third we spent aboard Whaleback, my father plotted our passage to remote anchorage and we settled in to our isolation for the night. While eating dinner in the cockpit, we watched a green ketch motor into the cove. It circled us and dropped anchor nearby. By their jerky, sloppy entrance, their inconsiderate positioning, but mostly by their noise, we knew they were landlubbers, inferior sailors, out for a weekend cruise.
In populated anchorages, my father made a sport of critiquing the lack of nautical skill aboard other boats. His world was echeloned from the most capable, stalwart sailors down to the whiniest couch-potatoes. My brother and I mimicked his distain with a grim, vicious pride: we’d built our own sailboat, we lived on it in addition to cruising during vacations. We were a tough, unwashed clan—our Spartan lives superior to all others.
“Idiots can’t even find their own holding ground,” my father grumbled, assessing the distance of the ketch to be sure we wouldn’t bump hulls when we swung at anchor.
My brother imitated him, “Get your own anchorage.”
Ashore, I’d seen Bogart in Casablanca. I struck a terrible Brooklyn accent: “Of all the harbors in all the world, they chug into mine.” I was the ship’s entertainer. Good for an impression or two, a riddle, or a summary of an old movie plot—useless at the tasks of sailing.
“Shhhh,” my mother chided us. “If you can hear them, they can hear you.”
Despite my aped distain, I eavesdropped on their chatter. Someone aboard was telling a story and receiving raucous laughter, the kind only allowed by children ashore. And yet there, across the short span of water, were adult voices—rowdy and carousing—the chink of glasses, the sound of a radio playing reggae music. The laugher rose in waves, retreated to a murmur, and rose again and their lights burned into the night, as if they had endless fuel, as if no accident requiring sobriety or a good night’s sleep might befall them. I listened. Shouldn’t they be worried about all the rules they were breaking? Or their blasphemous misuse of scared, silent air? Late into night, the drone of words and laughter filtered in bites through the mosquito netting over large hatch above my bunk.
Even now, I strain to hear what they said, what temptation turned me towards them.
After breakfast, the four of us and the dog rowed ashore to the rasping beach. The surf had receded in the night, and we could communicate in low voices.
My brother and I stripped off our shoes, socks, and pants and stuck our feet in the waves and let the stones pound our toes and ankles.
My brother’s mouth formed the word: Ouch! But I couldn’t hear it.
“What did you think would happen?” my father asked, inspecting our bruised limbs. He was gruff but we understood that he would tried the same stunt, if we hadn’t tried it first, and that he admired our fearlessness until it became disaster, though we never could predict when disaster would arrive.
My mother gathered white rocks from the beach, pulled a blanket over our heads like a tent, and struck the rocks together to show us the grains of light they produce.
“Won’t the blanket catch on fire?” I asked.
“No, they’re weak sparks.”
Afterwards, when I brought them to my nose, the stones smelled of sulfur and char.
I pocketed two white rocks, gifts from the gods of fire. They clicked reassuringly in my pocket: this is how I would survive in the event that I was marooned on a deserted island. My mother read nautically themed books to us in the cockpit just before the mosquitoes set in. We were half way through Treasure Island and my brother and I occupied the same imaginary seascape as apprentices of Long John Sliver, “Matey,” he called to us, “Avast, Mateys!” For my brother and me, there was a single path to adulthood: piracy. One way or another, we’d have to steal something that belonged ashore to survive.
My brother and I collected our spoils, each gem more precious than the last. We wanted the entire beach, the entire island. We brought pocketfuls aboard. Our clothes stuffed and weighted with so much loot that neither of us could sit properly in the dinghy. We empty them onto the main cabin floor and brought out the shoe box that contained our toys and knickknacks.
“What will you give me for the big sand dollar?” I said in a fake auctioneer’s lilt.
“A two small scallop shells.”
“That’s two small scallop shells, going once, going twice . . . ”
For an hour, we traded raw currency: A cleaned green-crab shell for a perfectly round red stone, a sand dollar for lucky rock, striped all the way around with quartz. My brother’s prized possession, a shark’s tooth, was not available for barter. Not at any price.
Our father stepped on a sand dollar. With a crunch, it shattered, leaving a puddle of sand and fragments of shell on the cabin floor, trailing in his boot-prints.
“Just what I want, a boat full of rocks. Someone one could slip on these. Get them out of sight or they go overboard.”
Later, I would realize that he saw us as echoes of himself; he presumed there was nothing we would want that he hadn’t wanted. It baffled him that l liked stories of adventures between than the adventures themselves. Events made of words that one could control, manipulate, where a girl could talk and talk, and no one minded. In the meantime, we lived in his world. We learned to use hand signals instead of words when the wind was high. We learned the rules of the radio, the call signs, and codes. We learned to be quiet. We learned to see ourselves as part of a crew, a unit. We learned how to keep ourselves safe. We learned not bring any excess from shore aboard. On the contrary, when we went ashore, we brought the boat, its methods, its discipline and hierarchy as crew with us: father is captain, mother first mate. The line of obedience descended down to the dog.
We departed the rolling rock beach, the cove invaded by lubbers, the coast of Nova Scotia. By the summer I turned thirteen, I would secretly prefer populated anchorages, where the wind brought voices of others across the water, through the hatches. Some force, one I cannot name, was about to shift, to pull me away from our quiet lives. I would covet the second world, those louder life forms who loved their own noise. I eavesdropped, full of excitement and wonder, wanting to know: what is it they hear?
In my city life, I push my desk next to the window, where I can listen to the wind. On the sill, I keep a pair of round white stones, a smooth rock on which a child’s hand once printed “Nova Scotia, 1990,” and one enduring sand dollar.
I live in a shabby Victorian house near railroad tracks in neighborhood where I could spit from my window onto the side of the house next door. At night, music emanates from walls and windows, cars rev up the street, doors slam, couples argue and rattle keys into locks. These truncated arias never cease to captivate me. And then what? How did it end? They are set before the rattle of trains in passage, and the whir of bus-ways, plane corridors, the hum of refrigerators, computer screens, and heaters.
I’ve traded sound for noise.
On occasion, I have to flee the cacophony, the oppressive amount of noise our species produces, and remove myself to quieter harbors where I can hear ancient sounds, ones that loop back—farther, farther still—towards the beginning. Then I turn away again, unwilling or unable to be alone, to submit to the old merciless gods, though I still believe, there will be a reckoning for failing to pay them daily homage, and that I will not know the entire cost of my choice until it’s been deducted.
From my room in the old house, crudely divided into apartments by locked doors, I eavesdrop on the rituals of Sunday mornings in winter, the intimacy of bodies arising lazily into the same cold air: the murmur of coupling, the burble of coffee-makers, pans clacking onto a stovetop, the slap of a cupboard, the chink of glass. For a sweet hour, no one speaks.