A Cape Cod Notebook 1/15/08

listenOn a Winter Beach

By Robert Finch

During one bitterly cold day earlier this month, I went for a short walk at the tail end of the afte rnoon. A hard, cold wind had been scouring the land relentlessly since morning, and a light dusting of snow from the previous night had settled on the frozen ground. I walked along a narrow band of moor that lay between me and the bay. It had been almost swept clean of snow by the steady wind, and it was here I began to see how hard the freeze really was. The bare sandy ground was as hard as concrete. The wind blew mercilessly here, slipping like a knife into the cracks and crevices of my clothing, t rying to pry me open like a quahog.

On the beach there was a single line of footprints ahead of me. But these seem to have been made in another age, an ice age ago. Now they lay fossilized by the cold, gathering snow dust in their dents . My own footsteps, like ghost tracks, left no prints at all. The bay beach was, if anything, harder tha n the moors, barren and empty except for a few frozen slipper shells. These mollusks were the victims of "Dead Man's Fingers," an aptly-named Japanese seaweed that invaded our waters in the 1970s. The seaweed's thick, slimy, limp fronds attach to shellfish, as it had to these slipper shells, then dra g them ashore on the wind and the tide. It holds them there on the beach until both organisms freeze or desiccate in the burning wind.

On the western horizon one of the Cape's violent winter sunsets began to play itself out. It was lo vely to watch, but the beach had an unnerving, pre-human aspect to it. I climbed the bluff and walked among a string of empty summer cottages, boarded blind for the winter. I could easily believe that people had left this place for good, and that I was only some relict or guardian spirit looking on, except that the biting wind kept reminding me of my flesh and blood reality.

Heading inland again, I did meet one man, a hunter, a figure clad wholly in white - white-jacket, wh ite gloves, white hood, white face mask. He was invisible against the snow until he emerged suddenly qui te near, startling me. So inhuman did he look, with not an inch of flesh showing, that for a brief mom ent I wondered if he might be out for me, the last of my kind. But he was after other game, rabbit or pheasant. With a brief nod from behind silvered ski glasses, he passed silently by.

I made my way back inland, back through a dead landscape bathed in light like blood. A nearby church bell clanged five o'clock like a warning. That evening a friend asked me where I had been on my walk. I was hard put to say. "On the beach" hardly seemed adequate. I felt that I'd gone much fart her and been out much longer. There was some nagging meaning to the whole strange excursion that I could not quite grasp. But there was nothing definite I'd learned or discovered from it - unless it was how willing the imagination is to indulge itself in trying to fill up such an empty and whitened wor ld.