The November First Selected Writer is James Strauss
Please feel free to email James at: firstname.lastname@example.org
THE TIDE CLOCK
by James Strauss
Carper was sitting on his back porch, enjoying the cool breeze of the evening, and wishing he still smoked when it began. That woman’s laughter, shrieking from the house next door, reacting to everything her two male companions said. Loud, phony, piercing the night. A large family of summer people owned the house, various groups would stop by for a night, a weekend or a week throughout the summer.
In winter it was silent. He loved winter. Carper had moved to the Grove, nine years ago, after a twenty-year marriage that didn’t have the will to make twenty-one.
The community was quiet, perched atop a sixty foot cliff at the northernmost part of the Chesapeake Bay. He had fallen in love with the beauty of the place instantly. He found a house for sale cheap on the first gravel road by the bay, not waterfront, but you could see the ships heading for the Chesapeake and the Delaware Canal from the living room. The place was a dump, but it instantly felt like home.
He immediately became seduced by the quiet of the Grove, quiet now being ruined by that cacophonous shrieking laughter. This particular threesome, the two men and the woman came by once a year, always started a fire and drank outside at night. The men would murmur, the woman would respond to everything they said like laugh track. A loud, harsh laugh track. The men could not possibly be that funny.
He grabbed a leash and checked the tide clock, an extravagant gift from his girlfriend Kimberly who lived in the nearby town of Galena. The clock was custom made with a map of the Grove on it’s face. He needed a break from the noise and Cruiser would love a walk on the beach.
The tide clock indicated that the tide was low and high tide was beginning. Until high tide fully arrived, there would be enough beach for a nice stroll at dusk. Cruiser, a large Doberman that Carper found marooned in the local SPCA, loved the water and was instantly alert at the sound of the leash.
The beach was the most unusual feature of The Grove. On summer days, there would be almost no place to park a chair or blanket. Families with children would descend on the beach like locusts, but at all other times it was deserted, except for Carper and Cruiser who made daily treks along the rocky shoreline morning, noon and night. The tide clock became a necessity, as high tide would completely engulf the beach and lap against the base of the cliff.
One local told Carper that the cliff lost a foot a year to erosion and he had seen himself how trees at the top would begin to show root, then more, finally tumbling into the water below. The process took years and walking under them always gave him a chill. Once humbled, they would start another descent to the water, held aloft for a time by branches, horizontal and sinking down slowly. The small ones could be climbed over, the larger ones needed to be crawled under as long as there were branches intact to hold the trunk off the ground. The cycle was endless and at any time, once proud maples and sycamores would be in slow collapse, teetering or sinking into the bay.
The thick maple that now blocked the north shore path had fallen six months ago after years of predicting it’s own demise. Since it hit the beach, Carper and Cruiser had been first walking, then stooping, and now crawling under the space between the thick branches still supporting the old fellow. Its leaves were full and green, believing themselves still vertical and thriving. Fifty or sixty feet of the tree were submerged in the bay and fifty or sixty feet lay prone and suspended across the beach to the cliff where it’s roots dangled uselessly.
Carper let Cruiser off the leash and the dog methodically began checking his pee mail and leaving messages of his own. He disappeared under the fallen maple and Carper crawled under to join him, heading north toward the Turkey Point lighthouse, which hovered on a faraway cliff facing over the Elk River.
The tide was coming in but there was time for quick trip north before becoming stranded by the incoming Chesapeake. They picked their way cautiously over the rocky beach and surprised a pair of buzzards eating a beached channel catfish.
After reaching a spot made impassable by the tide, they turned around back south to home. They came to the old tree as an orange sun lit the clouds and began lowering itself into the waterline to the west. Cruiser splashed under the tree and Carper cursed to himself, realizing that he would have to crawl through the rising tide to get by. At fifty-six, he wasn’t as spry as he remembered himself to be and awkwardly executed an imperfect split to stay above the water.
His left leg cleared the trunk, pointing clumsily forward; but then his body directly wedged against the trunk and his right leg extended painfully backward while Cruiser wagged his tail-nub and smiled at his owner’s contortion.
His body was heavily pinned in the most painful posture the Devil could sketch and the trunk pushed the breath from his lungs. Every inch him was achingly stretched, tearing or crushed and an ancient panic began confusing the parts of his brain that weren’t dealing with the pain. He could move his head a little, but that was the only part of him responding to his will to move.
He tried to scream as he felt ribs noisily cracking in his chest. No scream would come, just a foamy red gurgle of blood through his lips. He heard the dog wandering off as the gentle tide splashed against his nose. His lifeless arms, extending on either side of the tons of lumber refused to dig or push or pull or make any attempt to free him.
Incoherent bubbling moans escaped his lips and his body felt as if impaled by thick wires of pain, cutting through flesh and bone, an agony building beyond any he could’ve imagined. He prayed for death, please lord take me quickly, end the pain, I want nothing but death, now, now, please.
The darkness thickened around him and the slow rising tide began to enter his lungs and return, pink and frothy to the bay. He could feel muscles loudly, hotly popping in his right leg as his body sought relief from the pressure from above. He heard a fish slap the water feeding on night insects. And the pain became fire.
Please Lord, now, please, now! his terrified mind screamed over and over and over. A muscle in his neck popped loudly and a new torment began. The water was ringing his face and receding, surrounding, receding in an arrhythmic dance. He tasted the excrement of fish and crabs, the metallic tang of underwater rock, the bitter funk of algae entering and exiting his lungs. He heard Cruiser splashing in the water a world away and still so close.
Snap, another rib buckled and ripped into flesh and lung. Please Lord, now, please now. His breathing was now like gargling and his eyes were underwater. The pain stopped in his right leg and reappeared in his broken hips. Up on the cliff he heard a car crunching gravel. Something alive, brittle, timeless and unseen made small tears in the skin of his neck.
He thought of Kimberly. He thought of his mother, he thought of his son. A dull white light became all of his vision as the water playfully lapped onto his ears and away again. The pain was now one pain, indistinct from the water, the air, the sand in his lungs. The pain promised to ease and lied. The huge trunk rolled slightly by the tide went over him slowly, a rolling pin on dough. He bubbled, he gurgled, he ached, he prayed.
Somewhere off in the distance he heard shrieking laughter as he bubbled a silent scream into the rising waters of the Chesapeake. Back at home the tide clock inched towards High.
James Strauss is a retired blues guitarist and unretired biochemist. He's written a lot of music but this is only his second short story. He lives in Earleville, Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay and The Tide Clock is a recurring nightmare.