These Seas That Swell
If you follow the lungomare—the road that hugs the sea—from Circeo to Gaeta, you will pass ancient ruins, hilltop temples, and boardwalks with waterfront restaurants. In Sperlonga, there is one of these restaurants, made entirely out of pluff mud and salt grass. The people inside, they built it with their bare hands years ago, when the pontine was still a marsh, before the authorities filled it in.
These people—a family of four—left Sabaudia by boat. When they reached the Cave of Gaia, where the waves crashed onto the rocks of Mount Circeo, they filled up their nets and buckets with shellfish and minnows, packed down their vessel with tools and supplies, and readied their boat to set sail down the coast.
In the early afternoon, they arrived at an estuary, where water broth both brackish and sweet mixed between high banks of pluff mud and salt grass. The family, they took one look at this mud and this grass and knew just what to do with it. From their boat, they pulled out shovels and buckets, and began to dig. They drove their shovels deep down into that mud, heaving out hefty heaps until each of their buckets was full. Then, the family took out their shears and baskets, and began cutting down the grass until each of their baskets were full. With this mud and this grass, this family constructed their home.
It didn’t take long for the supplies to run out. After all, there were few to begin with. But once they had, they collected more mud and grass from the estuary and used it to build tables, chairs, and a sign that read: RISTORANTE. They knew their food would say the rest.
Despite its location, the restaurant never quite made a name for itself. The locals and tourists alike preferred fine dining—large plates of seafood pasta presented elegantly on silver platters atop white tablecloths—but the family was committed to preparing simple, downhome dishes from all over the world—fried grouper and shrimp, blackened flounder and sea bass, low country boils, jambalayas, curries, phos, and gumbos, served up with ice-cold beer or wine made in-house from local ingredients with the family’s own hands.
Regardless of the appearance and reputation, those with an appetite, driving along the lungomare on their way to Pozzuoli, Ischia, or Amalfi, would see the open-air beachfront establishment and stop for its charm. Regulars would usually take a seat at the bar, on one of the stools. Teenagers would nearly always nestle into a nook on the patio, overlooking the estuary. Families—especially those with children—would take whatever was given to them, usually settling for a table in the corner, out of everyone’s way.
The adults would always be the first to see them—a cluster of mangrove roots hanging from the ceiling of the dining room; a bouquet of saltwort sprouting from the center of the table; a patch of seagrass growing directly out of the restaurant’s mud floors.
“What are those?” the adults would ask, squinting their eyes.
“What are what?” the children would respond, looking around the room.
“Those,” the children would explain, “are plants.”
“Plants,” the adults would echo, nodding their heads up and down, repeating the words that came from their children’s mouths. “Those are plants.”
Early in the morning, when the tide was going out, the father of the family liked to go for a swim. After drinking a cup of coffee in the restaurant’s kitchen, he would descend down the steps from the dining room to the beach and walk along the shoreline until he came to the estuary. Here, he would wade out into the sea until he could no longer walk, and then he would swim.
Beginning with a dive into a wave, he would swim underwater for as long as he could hold his breath. Then, he would surface past the breakers and begin to move parallel to the shoreline, leisurely at first, starting with a breaststroke, then switching to a backstroke and ending eventually in a butterfly.
After he had worn himself out, he would flip over onto his back, take a deep breath in and hold it, and with this breath that filled his lungs, the father would use it to float. He would lay there on his back on the rolling waves—his head and torso on the surface, his legs and feet dangling in the water beneath him—and he would look into the sky above.
Sometimes, the sky above would be bright blue for as far as the father could see, without a single cloud in it; other times, there would be a dense layer of shelf clouds, bringing in the rain from far off the coast. But every now and then, when the weather was just right, the sky would be both blue and filled with clouds—it was then that the father would watch these clouds float across that sky, as each took on a shape.
Some days, these clouds would take on the shapes of animals—a opossum, hanging upside down by its tail in a tree; a raccoon, fishing for crawdads in a shallow creek. Other days, these clouds would take on the shapes of plants—sprawling live oaks draped in Spanish moss, or towering umbrella pines on rolling hills. But regardless of the day, after the father had been floating on his back in the sea for a long time—breathing in through his nose, holding it, then slowly letting the air out through his mouth, over and over again—these clouds would start to take on shapes of their own. And when they did, the father would open up his mouth, and begin to sing.
When the tide was rising in the early afternoon, the mother liked to sit on the banks of the estuary and watch it fill with seawater. After she had finished her lunch, she would drink her digestivo and roll a cigarette in her rocking chair on the patio overlooking the sea, and with her last sip, she would stand up, light the cigarette with a match and stroll down the beach.
On her way to the estuary, she would pass the pools left by the morning's receding tide, which would be filled with starfish, crabs, and minnows, soon to be reclaimed by the sea. She would also pass by the magnificent sand dunes, crawling with saltwort and sand reed, where the white crabs would be scurrying into their holes between the tracks from a turtle who had recently laid her eggs nearby.
While all of this interested the mother, what had drawn her down the beach away from the restaurant day after day outside of the water that filled the estuary was the mud that lined its banks. This mud—a pungent, viscous miasma—was crawling with life. The salt grass grew up out of it along the banks, and the oysters rooted to it in the shallows; the fiddler crabs burrowed into it on the shore, and the flounder buried themselves in it on the estuary bottom. It was with this mud that the mother made her sculptures.
With a small trowel that she carried in her apron, she would scoop out heaps of this pluff mud onto the banks as the seawater spilled into the estuary, carrying with it larger fish, crustaceans, and debris, and she would mold this mud into shapes.
What shapes she molded the heaps into depended on what she saw in the estuary that day. Some days, it would be a large piece of driftwood, adorned in barnacles and kelp. Other days, it would be a flounder, that strange flat fish with both of its eyes on the same side of its head.
But no matter the day, or what she saw in or around the estuary, the mother would always sculpt a starling from that mud, reminding her of Rome.
At high tide in the late afternoon, the son liked to go fishing. Long before preparing dinner, when the sun was only just beginning to drop in the sky, he would grab his casting net and buckets, and walk down to the estuary to see what the tides had brought in that day.
The son would walk up and down the banks, surveying the surface for signs of baitfish swimming in schools. When he saw them, he would ready the casting net in both of his hands, feeling the weights between his fingers, and then he would toss it in. The son would throw that casting net out across that water in such a way so that it would open up, as wide as the mouth of the estuary itself, and swallow up whatever was inside. Standing on the bank with the rope in hand, the son would then slowly tug until he could empty it out onto the sand around his feet.
When he opened up that net, out would fall minnows, mackerel, flounder, bass, crabs, and shrimp—dancing and flopping around on the sand like they had fallen right into the son’s frying pan. This is when he would scoop up his catch, one by one, and throw them into his bucket, which he had filled with seawater.
After it was full, he would walk further down the banks of the estuary until he came to the outdoor kitchen that he had built with his sister years before. And in this kitchen, the son would clean this fish—scraping the scales from their bodies, emptying the guts from their bellies, and separating the meat from the bone as he portioned this fish out into fillets. Later, he would carry his catch back to the restaurant, where he would keep them on ice until that night’s dinner, when he would steam the shellfish, and batter down and fry up those fillets, toss them in sauce, season them heavily, and throw them on platters for himself and his family and whoever else had stopped by the restaurant while driving on the lungomare making their way down the coast with an appetite for something to eat.
But before going back, he would take those guts and those scales, and plant them shallow in the pluff mud, where the family had recently harvested salt grass. He would take his hand, and hollow out a little hole in the mud, drop in some of the innards from the fish and a single fishscale, and then cover the hole up again. He did this until each of the scales that had been scraped from the body of the fish had been planted. Once he was done, he would rinse off his hands in the brackish water, grab his bucket, and head back home.
Late in the evening, when the tide was fully out, the daughter liked to forage on the beach in the tidepools. After she had finished dinner and poured herself a final glass of wine, she would grab her satchel from her desk and head out onto the night.
The daughter always thought that the beach, at night, when the tide was fully out, looked like the surface of the moon—sand that had been smoothed out by receding waves, tide pools that had been carved out by the currents, the entire scene a vast monochromatic landscape illuminated by celestial bodies, passing boats, and the occasional bioluminescent plankton bloom in the swash zone—and it was upon this strange, mysterious landscape that the daughter would forage for shells.
On her nightly passeggiata, the daughter would find shells from conchs, clams, and snails; shells from scallops, mussels, and oysters; shells from crabs, lobsters, and, at times, even the shell of a nautilus. And when she found these shells, she would stoop down and scoop them up in her hands—or sometimes her arms, if they were too large to pick up with her hands alone—and place them into her satchel.
The daughter would do this until she arrived at the estuary, where she would sit down on a flat rock, and take these shells out—one by one—and toss them across the surface of the water, so that they would skip five, six, or seven times, before making their final splash and sinking down to the mud bottom below.
The father discovered the statue at low tide at the beginning of fall, after a week of tempestuous storms. He was walking up the beach towards the estuary for his morning swim, when he saw the trident jutting out of the sand. When returning with his family later, they took one look at this and knew just what to do with it.
With their shovels, the family dug the statue out and dragged it over to the estuary, where they mounted it upright on the highest bank. Then, they covered its surfaces with pluff mud and salt grass, until what had once been a statue became an amorphous lump of clay. As the sun climbed high above them, the family worked that mud in their hands until they had formed a live oak tree, draped in Spanish moss.
The family stood back from their creation and stared at it in the autumn sun—its roots climbing down the estuary’s banks into the water below, its trunk standing sturdily in the mud and the muck that surrounded its base, its limbs reaching up high into the sky above—and then, the family went along their way: the father waded out into the sea for his swim; the mother sat down along the banks to sculpt; and the son and daughter, they walked up and down the estuary searching for oysters.
When they found them, they took out their knives from their pockets and shucked two oysters open. And in each of the oysters, they found a pearl. And with each of these pearls, they planted them around the base of the live oak tree.
Of course, the son and daughter ate both of their oysters whole, letting them slide down the back of their throat and into their bellies. After doing so, the son passed his shells to his sister, who slipped them into her pocket with hers.
That night, when the daughter went foraging under the light of the moon, she noticed the first leaves sprouting out of the limbs of the live oak. To this, she took the oyster shells from her pocket, and skipped them across the water—but to the daughter’s surprise, they did not sink. After they had skimmed the surface four times, they made their final splash, and then floated. They must have floated for over an hour, as the daughter sat there, watching—until eventually, when the tides changed, and the saltwater started to spill back into the estuary, slowly rising up its banks—these oyster shells suddenly sank down to the muddy bottom below.
Alex Gregor is a writer, editor, and educator from Atlanta, Georgia currently living in Rome, Italy. He is one of the founding editors of OOMPH! Press, the banjo player in the band, The Ship & The Swell, and a member of the Department of English Language & Literature at John Cabot University. Find out more at www.marginalcomets.com.
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