May, 1979. I have been living alone for three days now in a cottage on the west shore of North Beach, a long and narrow barrier spit of low sand dunes and salt marsh lying a mile or so east of Chatham at the elbow of Cape Cod.
Now, after forty-eight hours of fog, the evening is blessedly still and clear. Only a few high, thin clouds trail among the simple stars in a rich, dark-blue sky. The night seems to be calling me with its clarity, so in the last of the light I slip my skiff from its mooring in the creek bed, set the oars, and pull out into the current toward the straining lobster buoys. Anchoring about fifty yards out, I thrust my rubberized lantern beneath the surface and flick it on.
Drifting everywhere through the cold green waters is a fine white rain of dust like particles. This is the phytoplankton bloom, a seasonal explosion of minute waterborne single-celled marine plants, the source of it all, the base of the estuary’s rich food chain, the year’s investment, bone of its body, the tiny universal foundations on which all our lives rest. Among this fine, passive dust of phytoplankton swim larger motes of zooplankton: adult copepods and arrow worms, the larval stages of crabs, barnacles, mussels, and oysters. Many of these respond positively to light; they turn and swim, jerking and twisting up toward my beam.
My light sweeps across the dark, domed forms of the submerged, lead-weighted lobster pots resting on the bottom. Inside one I sense a blurred movement and, yielding to a sudden lawless impulse, I grab its buoy line, haul it up out of some two fathoms of water, and heave it, tipping and dripping, over the gunwale of the skiff and onto the ribbed floor between my legs.
Shining my light between its wooden slats and inner netting, I behold the white, ghoulish head of a large codfish spiked to the bottom of the cage for bait. The head stares up at me out of empty eye sockets, and around it dances an antic, dark collection of spider crabs, rock crabs, starfish, and one undersized lobster. The exposed creatures click, scuttle, and twist around the white fish head as though protecting their grisly treasure. I feel as though I have unearthed some undigested bit of night business.
I reach in and remove the small lobster (the owner of the pot would have to throw it back anyhow, I rationalize), then quickly heft the pot back over the side, where it sinks back down to the bottom. I row back to shore and moor my boat in the creek at the head of the tide, which tonight has almost reached the cottage.
As I bolt up the steps, a splash of light from Chatham Light, two miles to the south, catches me and throws my guilty shadow up against the raw shingles like a prison searchlight. Inside, I can barely wait for the water to boil. The shell is thin. I rip the arms from the body and crunch the claws open with my teeth. To the east, beyond the dunes, beyond the mindless screaming of the toads, the night surf crawls toward its flood.
Robert Finch’s latest book, just published, is "The Outer Beach: A Thousand-Mile Walk on Cape Cod’s Atlantic Shore.” Robert will be reading from his new book tomorrow evening at 7 p.m. at the Highland House Museum in North Truro