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King Tide

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L. Sutherland

Horseshoe crabs spawn in May, when the saltmarsh greens and you rent out a spare room to a rotation of seasonal researchers. Spring on the coast is insulating. Raw days and long silences, squalls that make knives of the sand. People only want the beach under sunshine, when it’s easy on them, and then they take all the Delaware Bay can give—buttery oysters on the halfshell, sunburns, bloated second homes. 

          May is when Eli moves in. 

          The first time he touches you: a handshake under the catalpa tree. 

          The second: a brush on the point of your elbow as he passes by, barely felt, maybe imagined, and remembered for the rest of the day. 

 

*

 

Horseshoe crabs have been the same, more or less, for four hundred and fifty million years. Their bodies are the color of dirty khaki and drag like tanks across the seafloor. They have ten eyes and a horde of limbs. When spawning, a female can lay up to a hundred thousand eggs, burying them on the beach, the moon and the tide high. Living fossils, they’re called. Older than flowers. 

          At night, your headlamp cuts bright gashes across a beach alive with such creatures. There is a shivering, hollow clatter as their shells collide. Eli is counting your steps to a randomized number on his clipboard as you hold the quadrat, a square frame made of PVC pipes. He tells you when to stop and you do, laying down the frame over a sample of crabs. 

          One female, four males.

          “Look at her, carrying all that dead weight,” he clucks, recording the numbers. 

          Eli is wearing what you will come to know him by: a chintzy, unbuttoned shirt, white tank top, red rubber boots. There are others with you too, volunteers who flip crabs stranded on their backs. Occasionally one asks a question. Eli is an eager teacher, the survey being part of his dissertation, and you listen in silence. 

          He’s a tourist, you think. I’m an assistant to a tourist.

          Out in the bay, the Shine ribbons in the water. It is a nauseous green light lurking beneath the waves, one that has haunted you since childhood. You have ruled out algae, fishing lights, hazardous waste. No one can see it but you. Tonight it is faint on the horizon, easy to miss, and you think of dropping into boiling water until your flesh puckers off the bone. 

          Eli clicks his pen against your chest. “Still here?” he says. 

          His smirk recalls the cowboys you once worshiped, cheek to your mother’s lap, the television painting her legs blue. You blink. The volunteers comb out ahead, headlamps swiveling across the beach. A swell washes over your feet. Eli tells you how many steps to take and you do. 

 

*

 

You live alone in a cottage with a creaky, wooden voice and doors too warped to close. You work as a line cook and a lab tech. You give your time to the crabs and the bay, always the bay. You love old denim, lilac, miniature things. You are gentle with others. This is the kind of man you are. 

 

Birds arrive, lank from flight, to feed on beds of horseshoe crab eggs before continuing north. The beach simmers with them. Their hunger is a burning thing, doubling their body weight in a matter of days. It is an ancient synchronization, the spawning and the migration. Every year there are less eggs, less birds, to count.

          You wake up early to count anyway, even after a closing shift. The birders are chatty and warm. You like them, especially Camille, an older Quebecois woman who summers in Cape May. The group idles on the sand before a flock of red knots gorging on fatty roe. Soon a small cannon is fired, spewing out a net that fixes the birds to the sand. Gunpowder ripens the air.

          After, the birds are measured, weighed, and tagged under a billowing cerulean tarp. You cradle an oystercatcher while Camille circles a band around its leg and tells lilting stories that you barely hear. You are watching Eli handle a plover, its wing delicately outstretched, a caliper measuring the length. His eyes are wide and open, fully open, like a child’s. Like a plover is the most precious stone in the world.    

 

*

 

The Shine disappears in photographs. Your laptop is full of frame after frame of yawning black waves. You check the water for signs of polluted runoff and bookmark articles on bioluminescence. You know the habits of dinoflagellates, stare at drawings of their cubist forms blown up on your screen. There is no answer. 

          As a child you tested your mother, pointing to the green nebula in the waves, telling her “Look, there.” She squinted, cupped a hand to her eyes. 

          “Look harder,” you begged.

          “I don’t see anything,” she said, her laugh a nervous bubble. “Just water.”     

Eli bathes in the outdoor shower. You pass close enough to watch soap ooze and pool into the yard, hear the water hissing over him. Later, in the bathtub, you trace the nautical compass on the back of your left hand. It was tattooed soon after your first shot of T, its lines growing indistinct. The bathwater lowers as you step out of it. At night a woman stiffens, hands clutched in her pockets as you jog past. You cannot remember the last time you were hugged.

 

*

 

A horseshoe crab molts six times in the first year of its life. Washed ashore, their pale, outgrown shells are often mistaken for corpses. Hardly any live that long, about one in a thousand, but those that do are small citadels fortified with slipper limpets and mussels. Few creatures can puncture their chitinous exoskeletons, and even then, a horseshoe crab's immune system is renowned for its coagulative powers. 

          Seeing them—the click of legs, the frenetic chelicerae—people speak of the primordial, the prehistoric, the alien. Science fiction. An Ordovician memory haunting the present. 

 

You sit on the porch mending his pants. Eli ripped them scrambling over wet and barnacled rocks, tore up his feet too, and now he sits here in his briefs watching you. It has been weeks with him in the cottage, and still his attention is disarming. He has a face like a satellite, channeling emotional frequencies. He calls a cool breeze off the bay a gift. A strawberry, red all the way through, is heaven. He is young, in his twenties, and you are too aware of his movements. When you blink, the Shine hazes behind your lids.

          “How’d you learn,” he asks, twirling thread around his finger. 

          “My mother, she made beautiful dresses.”

          Bunched cotton in the bathtub drinking up beet dye, 

          the raw pink of living things, 

          mother with a pin cushion on her wrist.   

          Eli leans close as if it is nothing. You tie off the stitch, and he pulls on the pants, jaunty beneath the catalpa tree. He plucks two of its long seed pods and holds them to his ears like elegant green jewelry. In the sun, his hair is a drink of warm cider.

          Looking at him you think: I will die without him. I will die either way.

 

*

 

A lover said you would never pass: “You don’t even try.”

          He told you how to walk (chest forward), how to sit (knees wide), how to talk. “I’m just trying to help. You know the other boys won’t bother.” 

          You wanted to be extinguished by him. Snuffed out. Your chest was newly flat, voice a frayed wire, and he would not be seen with you. He smoked while you toweled yourself, his roommates singing Dionne Warwick in the kitchen. Dressed, you watched the roach smolder in his thin fingers, lit end punctuating the silence, until he nodded to a window overlooking the crushed shell driveway. 

          On the way out, a shard of bleached oyster lodged itself in the leather of your sandal. You didn’t bother to pluck it out.

 

Since the mid-19th century, the bodies of horseshoe crabs have been used as fertilizer. Farmers scooped shovelfuls of eggs for chicken feed, backed horse-drawn wagons into the surf to haul away spawning adults. A photograph shows hundreds of them piled on land, shells shingled atop one another, telsons waving like bayonets. Two men observe, and it is a scene not unlike that mountain of bison skulls from 1892. Those too would become fertilizer.  

          Later, in the 1990s, horseshoe crabs were caught for bait. There is no better feed to pot an eel than half the body of a crab, split bilaterally. It was around then people began to harvest crabs for the miraculous pharmacological properties of their blood. It was around then you realized every queer you knew inevitably defected to the city. 

 

*

 

It has occurred to you that the Shine may not exist at all. Given that no one else can see it, given how often you are alone, given that no one would believe you, a craving of a person, you who do nothing but look down at your feet, down and away. Coward. You are making it up. 

 

You dream of Eli on his knees. His face is washed out, his pupils small, and you realize you are wearing a headlamp. You sit on a bed, him kneeling before you. The bed rolls as if over a wave. Eli opens his mouth—in it, a pearl cupped by his tongue. 

          You wake to your bedroom door swaying in the draft. Sitting up, you can just make out his across the hall. Then you hear feet hit the floor, that fascinating drag in his walk, and drop back down. Listen to him pissing. 

          You want to embrace and be embraced, to hold and be held. Held, yes, you want to be held. Before the ceiling, floaters drift across the jelly of your eyes. 

 

*


 

At work, you stand cutting the eyes out of a potato. It is the deep lull of the afternoon, the prelude to dinner service. You remember when, as a child, you peeled vegetables with your mother over the sink she once bathed you in. You told her that other girls kept secrets from you. 

          “Secrets?” She did not understand, and neither did you. You wanted to know what all girls seemed to know, what allowed them to act without trying. What she knew, too. 

          She loved having a daughter. She said it all the time. 

          At night, a crowd slouches around watching the Phillies lose. You are in the weeds, two orders behind, when you spot Eli regaling at the bar. Joel, the barback, slips by negotiating a bucket of ice, and you force a plate of littlenecks on him. He is stiff with you; this is the most you have ever said to him. Words are like petals falling from your mouth, a bouquet best kept to yourself. From the kitchen door, you watch him deliver the plate to Eli, who meets your gaze as he tips a clamshell to his lips. You are buoyed by the contact. 

          The kitchen closes. You scrape down the grill, rake wet fingers through your hair, clock out. Eli is not at the bar, or in the cottage. You stand before a window and watch your reflection, high forehead and mustache overlaying the dunes. A gust of wind rattles bits of porcelain and sea glass lining the windowsill. It stinks of low tide.

          You would let him step on you, and here he cannot be bothered to lift his foot. 

*

 

The horseshoe crab is not really a crab. It is closer to spiders and scorpions with their jittery mouthparts and too many legs. Unlike its relatives, a horseshoe crab has no venom. In our effort to categorize we see only what we recognize and, in naming, impart boundaries. A crab is not a scorpion. A spider is not a man.

You spend a day almost crying but never getting there. On the beach, a moon jellyfish desiccates in the sun. Foam gathers in striations, great frothy hills that dissolve against your touch. Heaps of red seaweed drape across the shore like blood splatter. You comb your fingers through the plump fronds and, lifting your hand, find it gloved in long, dark hair. You feel possessed.

 

Two volunteers wait by the water. They are faux-naturalist types from the city who gush endlessly about the size of the spawning, crabs as far as they can see. You know better. Squatting in the surf, Eli lifts a crab before his face. 

          “Facehugger,” he jokes.  

          The couple laughs. You sulk, the Shine threatening you in the water. Eli pops up, pulling the clipboard from between his thighs, and lets the others walk ahead.

          “Pouty!”

          Should I call you Ripley, you mean to say, but instead watch the green light bloat and deflate on the horizon, morphing through ghostly iterations of itself. Eli is looking at it too, you realize. 

          “What is that?” 

          He turns to you, headlamp exploding his expression. Acid creeps up your throat, a high tone in your ears. Eli looks at the Shine. He is looking and you want him to stop.

          “I don’t see anything,” you say. “Just water.”

          His cheeks pucker. He shifts on the uneven sand, leaning back so that his shoulder touches yours. You feel tight and shameful when you pull away.      

 

*

 

Horseshoe crabs are harvested—half a million a year—to be bled in medical facilities. Their blood is milky blue, rich in copper, and hypersensitive to endotoxins. A needle taps their heart, and they drip slow as sap until a third of their blood is drained. What comes of it is a lucrative extract: limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL). At fifteen thousand dollars a liter, it is one of the most valuable liquids on earth. LAL is used to test the sterility of vaccines, implants, injectable drugs, the syringe you sink weekly into the meat of your thigh, finger a steady pressure on the plunger. 

          After being bled, the crabs are thrown back to sea. Many of them die. 

          There is a synthetic alternative to LAL that has yet to be widely adopted.                                                                                                                                                                                       

                                               

It is a week until Eli’s departure, and you have made a ghost of yourself. Orders fill the kitchen line. Bathwater rises and falls. The Shine had always been yours, a private terror, and now there is Eli, looking and looking more than you can stand. What can be said of it? You are angry. It is so easy for him, this living. 

          At night you find him standing in your bedroom door. You stay very still, dizzy with what he has seen. He speaks evenly, but you imagine the disgust behind his tone, how he has already turned on you. You remember that a horseshoe crab has an open circulatory system, its blood not contained in vessels but flowing freely throughout the body cavity. You leave the cottage to spend hours wandering streets lined with empty, vinyl-sided condos. A car passes and you think, wildly, of chasing it. 

 

You lay under the catalpa tree and watch leaves break up the night. You can feel the Shine without seeing it, vibrating like a strummed chord in your veins. Then he is there. A halo of hair rings his chest, his skin dewy. He has not shaved and you think it suits him. 

          “I see it, too,” Eli says. 

          The leaves hiss. He traces a line from your temple to your jaw, and you wilt under his touch. He is whispering and your blood is humming, go, he says, go together, him brushing your throat and the tree singing. 

          When you take his fingers in your mouth 

          you taste dirt 

        and salt. 

 

*

 

The skiff rocks as you approach the Shine. 

You are far from shore. The bay stretches its black throat wide as if to drink you in. 

Eli crouches with you at the bow, his sweat reflecting green light. 

Closer, and you see curtains of bubbles rise from the depths. Effervescence mists your skin. It smells like a flooded cellar. The Shine glows brighter, pushing up through the water, and solidifies as it breaks the surface. A solid, living thing. 

Your bladder loosens. It is a horseshoe crab the length of a man, pulsing with light. The green throbs outward from the confluence of its legs, its bristled mouth large enough to swallow a fist. Its legs churn the water into white froth. You are 

strangled, 

atomized. 

Eli leans over to touch its shell. The Shine—this animal—pulses in response. It is too much. You fall forward and Eli pulls roughly on your shirt, it slips off of you, your shoulder blades yawning as he takes you

  behind the neck, the Shine boiling and burping up froth, the tide, Eli, yes, his hands

 

down your spine, the moan 

                                      of your ribs, you

                        being held by him, begging.

L. Sutherland is a writer from the Jersey Shore. You can find them staring into the sea at a beach near you, or on Twitter @laur_sutherland.

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