Throwback Thursday | An UNDERWATER Excerpt: “Beached” by M . Howard

Sal woke up to the raucous “hellos” of his pet raven, Ruben, which meant that the tide was out and that it was time to make the rounds. It was a bit cool, but not cool enough to induce him to put on anything over the singlet and boxer shorts he’d worn to bed. He swung his feet over the side of the plank frame and into a pair of rubber shower shoes. It might not be cold, but the fresh wash of broken shells and flotsam could do a number on bare feet. Even his bare feet. And besides, it was unlikely he’d run in to anybody.

He’d been homesteading after a fashion on this stretch of beach for almost a year now, and knew every square foot of shoreline for ten miles either way. His intimate knowledge of his revier extended inland into the rainforest for a mile or so, until the landscape got seriously vertical, but he didn’t spend much time in the woods. He was a beachcomber. And the only really good thing that had ever come out of the woods, was Ruben.

“Good morning, Ruben.”

Ruben glared from the driftwood banister that surrounded the rude porch. “Hello.”

Ruben had a surprising vocabulary for a raven, and his repertoire ranged from “God damn it!” and “Perfect!” to “Ouch!” and “Wow!” All pretty much expletives–except for his conversational hellos.

Sal swung a tin pail from his belt for provisions, grabbed a canvas bucket for water, and headed off for his morning constitutional. “Let’s go, Ruben.”

Ruben flew off the porch, glided to the ridge of driftwood and debris that defied most high tides, and hopped lopsidedly from foot to foot, waiting to see which direction they’d be heading this morning.

“North,” said Sal, heading down midway between surf’s edge and dry sand to get the best footing. He scanned as he walked, occasionally retrieving a curiously shaped piece of driftwood or cork float and tossing it above the tidal line. He’d pick them up on the way back. Ruben strutted ahead, foraging for his own birdy breakfast, and kept in front with an occasional lazy flap of wings and an easy glide. He ate well.

So did Sal. Periwinkles and limpets. Horse clams and razor clams in season, crabs, and gooseneck barnacles—a particular favorite. Not much meat in them, but they were incredibly delicate and well worth the effort. He fished a little and could always count on a bullhead or two, and the occasional flounder. He’d even experimented with seaweed and kelp balls. When he felt lucky, he fished upstream for cut-throat trout and supplemented his diet with huckleberries and chokecherries. But truth be told, he was more than a bit superstitious, and the thick-green-cedar forest scared him.

“Let’s go, Ruben. Wait a minute—what’s all this?” A clutch of line and orange floats—no, not floats. Those were—life jackets. Up a bit further, large chunks of rubber, fuel tanks, and the twisted wreckage of an inboard motor. Well, so much for the lifeboat. He turned toward the sea and sheltered his eyes for a better view against the rising sun.

The surf crashed white against the rock pillars about two hundred meters out, and Sal could just make out the ruined keel of what might be a wrecked fishing boat, or even a cabin cruiser.

Damn. He hurried up the beach, startling Ruben, who flew on ahead. After all, there might be…there.

Up ahead, just a little bit higher than the swath of firm sand that Sal kicked up, on the ridged border of dune, he saw—something.

The dune circled a brackish pond where fresh water stream met the tide’s ebb and flow, and just breaking the rim, Sal saw hands.

He broke into a dead run, and as he reached the crest, hands became wrists, and wrists lengthened to arms. Incredibly broad shoulders curved into a graceful neck all but obscured by streaming black tresses. She lay face down, crusted with drying patches of sand. Her skin was black—a dull, flat black that shared more with killer whales and dolphins than any African or Negrito he’d ever encountered.

Ruben fluttered overhead, landed on the far side of the pool, and croaked, “Hello!”

Sal ignored his feathered buddy, and gingerly placed a hand between the girl’s shoulders. Her skin was cool and curiously firm to the touch.

 

 

Underwater_Cover_for_Kindle

M. Howard grew up in a small west coast Norwegian fishing community. Favorite childhood haunts included a working waterfront and wooded parks fronting the Pacific and a cavernous used bookstore where he became intimately familiar with the pulps of previous decades. Extensive travel and a sequence of active careers (he narrowly avoided jail-time in Mombasa, and was suitably impressed by mirror-sunglasses-sporting/Colt Python-toting Dominican Republic Police) provided the courage and leisure to explore writing as a means of keeping an adequate supply of lefse and aquavit.

 

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