by Andrea Nolan
The girl felt a flick against her instep, and although the drowse of the day was thick upon her, she knew that when she opened her eyes her father’s fishing rod would be gone from where she had held it under her foot. She stood at the dock’s edge and looked at the blue-brown water. The concentric circles of the pole’s disappearance had only just begun their outward expansion. There was still a chance to catch the rod.
The Chesapeake Bay was shallow here, the tide was at full ebb, and in her hurry her dive was fast and steep, so she sliced through the water and straight into the soft muddy bottom, and when her hands knifed into the cool bottom muck, the rest of her followed. She was enveloped by dense silt; yet her momentum carried her deeper still into the ooze, past long buried plants that scratched her like feathers. She felt a surge of panic, but mostly wonder as she plunged, thinking maybe she had achieved the fantasy shared by all children, that she had found the secret passage through the center of the earth. She stretched herself out in her underground flight, continuing deeper and deeper still, dreaming of resurfacing in in the East China Sea, acclaimed as a miracle and adopted by a kind Chinese family who never made her wear dresses, and that let her have her own fishing rod, instead of forcing her to steal her father’s.
Instead, after what seemed like hours, but was probably only seconds, she bumped into a hard bottom deep beneath the mud, and spreading her hands wide, she felt the remains of an ancient oyster bed, centuries submerged since being knocked low by dredges and buried by silt as the forests were turned into farms. It was mostly a mass of fused, broken shells, but then her groping hands felt one oyster, distinct from all the rest, intact and over a foot in length, three times the size of the largest oyster she’d ever known.
Lying there, in the cold, her ears popping in the pressure, she imagined how that oyster had once lived up in the sun, as her teacher had taught that oyster reefs once were intertidal, and now it seemed as if she could feel the warmth of the sun held in the shell’s layers. As her fingers wandered the surface of the oyster, she could feel the calcified barnacles, the ridges of the oyster’s growth, and the deep straight cut of a knife that must have once scraped over the surface, maybe a stone knife, removing the oyster that had fastened onto this one, but leaving this one behind to replenish the reef. Unlike the shells that littered the shore, this oyster was whole, intact. Two halves still fused together, not released and opened in death.
She wondered what secret the oyster contained within. Did it still live, a fat, plump cloud of flesh swimming in a brine of salt? If she brought it to the surface and opened it, and ate the ancient oyster, would she become a girl of two times? Or maybe the oyster contained a pearl, immense and perfect in its creation.
Time became a thing suspended, and it felt as if centuries passed in mere moments. She imagined staying there, under the world – becoming a girl fossil, preserved for eons until archaeologists discovered and displayed her in a museum. Silt and silence settled heavy over her body.
Finally, her lungs aching and ears ringing, she relented to the demands of life, and pushed and kicked free of the mud, rising from the cold of the silt, into the warmth of the water, and then up into the heat of the summer air.
As the girl walked home rodless, clutching the oyster and dripping with mud, she knew there’d be consequences for the missing rod; still she smiled as she breathed her beautiful, primeval sulfurous stink. She had been to the bottom of the world. She sank the oyster in cold salt water and kept it there for a month, to see if, however improbably, the oyster was somehow still alive and would open to breath and eat. But it stayed firmly closed, neither dead nor alive, not revealing plump flesh nor immense pearl, nor some other secret not imagined. After a month she took it out and hid it under her loose floorboard, keeping it all to herself.
She would take it out to look at when she needed reminding that there was more to her life, and her world, than just that moment. Billions of years had preceded her, and more billions will follow her before the dying and expanding sun finally consumed the Earth. It calmed her to think of this, just as it would calm her to imagine the age of the oyster, and all the centuries it had laid buried. It seemed to her that maybe it was the same sort of calm her mother got from singing hymns on Sunday morning – a sense of place in the immensity of things.
In time, she would take the oyster with her to college, and to graduate school. The oyster would come with her on research vessels when she probed the deep for it’s secrets with deep-water submersibles, and even joined her in Antarctica as she sought ancient life forms miles deep in the ice. And when she met the man she knew she’d marry, she showed him the oyster one night after they had made love, and were still sweaty and entangled in sheets that were tangy with come and salt. She told him of the day she swam to the bottom of the world, and in turn he told her the story of climbing to the top of an oak tree in a thunderstorm, and the stillness he found swaying in the branches in the center of a storm.
The oyster shell was one of the few things she brought with her into her new shared home, and although it was her one perfect treasure, she no longer hid it, but kept it instead on a low shelf, so when her infant daughter learned to crawl, and then to walk, she’d find it, and she could tell her daughter the story of how she had once dove to the to the bottom of the world. And maybe her daughter would be the one, finally, to pry the oyster open to see what it contained within, or maybe her daughter would find her own oyster, or acorn from the top of a tree; or maybe instead her daughter would grow up to be a writer, and find a rock, grabbed along with a handful of gravel, as she fell down a mountainside, only to finally drag herself to a stop, and then find in her grasp a stone with a hint of creamy green shining within, maybe copper, maybe emerald, and maybe her daughter would keep that rock her whole life, as her reminder of all the things that are unknown.
Andrea Nolan has published two narrative guidebooks, Sea Kayaking Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and Sea Kayaking Virginia, and has had essays and stories listed as “Notable” in both The Best American Essays series and in The Pushcart Prize. Previously working as an environmental educator, and then as the owner of a sea kayaking company, she now works as a lecturer of English at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia.