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Excerpt: 'Walking the Wrack Line'

Chapter 14

Pebbles: Fine Distinction

Though the merman has nothing to do with my original reason for visiting Orford Ness, his story has complicated my musings about stones and shingle beaches. Local fishermen claimed they had caught him in their nets, a slithery creature, man from the waist up, fish from the waist down. They grabbed him under his arms and dragged him across the shingle beach, his tail flopping and flailing over the pebbles, which must have rolled and shifted a bit in his wake, darkened by seawater shaken from his scales. The villagers feared him. They took him to the bottom of the castle keep, bound him up in the dark and beat him, and finally, in a last resort to get him to speak, they hung him by his tail over a fire. Burn, they tried to get him to say. Scare.

The English warden who'd dropped me at the edge of the Orford Ness Nature Reserve on the southwest coast of Suffolk wanted to know what my interest was, why I'd searched out this place now closed to tourists. I didn't say anything about the merman, whom I'd first heard of just last night at a local art gallery when a woman who knew of my planned trip to the Ness had approached me, her eyes glittering. Nor did I say I'd been intrigued by the various descriptions of the Ness that I'd run across in my reading: "aura of mystique," "wild and hostile," "potentially dangerous." Debris, I told the warden, especially debris that's washed up by the sea--kelp, bottles, driftwood, stone. And shore regions formed by debris--coastal moraines and shingle beaches.

Last night in my hotel room after the gallery opening, I unwrapped a package the glittery-eyed woman had delivered to me--a musty book published in 1700--and turned the yellowed pages carefully to the marked passage about the Merman of Orford. There the historian recounts the tale of a creature caught in the fishing nets off of what became, centuries later, the shingle beach at Orford. Half man, half fish, bearded and scaly, the story says, a wild man who fought the nets that tangled him and the men who locked him up in the dungeon of a nearby castle. The woman from the art gallery evidently believed in a literal merman. I think she wanted me to also.

On the beach this drizzly November morning, the castle keep and its dungeon behind me, I picture the fishermen on the sea, eyeing the wind, hauling nets, calculating the odds of a good catch just a few miles farther out, where survival depends on knowing what the water holds. They catch sight of something they can't identify, something that lures, as the strange often does, a vision or a fear that requires an explanation. A sea turtle with tendrils? A squid with expression? What to think of a creature who resembles you but lives in a way that you cannot? Did they fear the merman, finally, because he was too much like them or not enough? They did what we humans too often do: imagined what might scare them and then created that very thing so they could drag it ashore, tie it up in a castle, make it feel what they didn't want to: burn, scare.

The warden has driven off. To both sides and in front of me, a desert of pebbles extends almost as far as I can see, a vast mosaic of flindered ochre and gray. No honking horns, cell phones, the sound of anything human. Out here on the Ness, no trees provide shelter, no butte or peak breaks up the terrain. Just acres of tiny stones underfoot and a silence that's almost eerie. Even the sea is quiet. Unfolding old and current maps, I try to figure out exactly where they'd hauled the merman ashore and realize the beach I'm standing on wasn't even here a thousand years ago. On a 1601 map, the earliest one I have, the Ness, which means nose, is north of the town of Orford and extends farther up and out into the water, as if sniffing the North Sea a little snootily. Five hundred years earlier, when the merman came ashore, it would have been even farther north, somewhere up near my hotel in Aldeburgh.

So, I asked the woman last night in the gallery, was he fish or human? Both, she insisted. But how? How did he get that way? Human sex with a fish is preposterous, as is the notion of either of them giving birth to the result. No, she said, not like that. He just came into being. Appeared. This is the stuff I'm drawn to, these stories of transformation: Kwakiutl lore about salmon turning into twins, Inuit stories of bears into men, quick-change artists like Spiderman, Superman, Wonder Woman.

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez's story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," heavy rains wash a creature ashore and into the courtyard of a young couple. He's a drenched and pitiful man who huddles in a corner, trying to get comfortable in spite of the enormous wings that sprout from his back. Is he an angel or a castaway? When the couple questions him, his answers are incomprehensible. When the villagers appear, they demand to know what he is; his muttered, indifferent responses lead them to torment him, pull out his feathers, burn him with a branding iron. He backs away in his chicken coop, befuddled and withdrawn.

Though the villagers want to know what to call him, what category to put him in, nobody needs to ask how he got there. Oddities, after all, wash up from the sea all the time. Neither does anybody need to ask how he happened to have wings. Marquez and the villagers understand that most mythological transformations don't require the passage of time. They also understand, as do the merman's captors, that instant metamorphosis carries with it the possibility of magical wisdom. Winged and fish-tailed men wash ashore, UFO's descend to Orford Ness, and even though we're afraid, we long to know what they know. Speak to us, we plead. Say something. I know those fantasies, that wish for some benevolent mandate to revolutionize me, cause me to wake up in the morning kinder, smarter, more determined to fight for justice. If only we could do it that way--hear a magical cure, sprout wings, slit open the necessary gills, grow a new face, eat a little kryptonite, whatever it takes to suddenly become more than merely human.

And this, I finally see, is how the merman's story instructs. They're out there at sea; the deck is salt-sprayed and slippery. Home is elsewhere, and up onto the stern of the boat they haul a figure that has slipped through the censoring nets of their own minds and silenced their chatter. They stand around and stare at the chance to change their lives and they refuse it. Back on shore, the villagers refuse it. In the Marquez story, they refuse it. They become worse than they were: they burn and scare.

No wonder the force of mythology and art and the Rilke line in which he declares that in the face of Apollo's headless torso, "You must change your life." What frightens us might also have the power to transform us--aliens from underwater, outer space, some other sky--though we'd be wise never to count on those. Beauty can do it too, serve as a kind of merman for the soul. Whether we find it on our deck, on the page, in the garden or on a gallery wall, we can be moved by it, stunned by how it disallows any wallowing or delay. Now? we want to ask. You mean I must change my life right now? Rilke's answer seems clear--right now.

I blur my eyes and the shingle stretches out before me, acres of stone-nubby carpet unrolled for miles beside a gray sea that reminds me I love myths of transformation because in reality human change is often so difficult. Incremental, tedious, the result of years and years of a dailiness that abrades and polishes, slowly changes our shapes. Dreams get fragmented, washed away, new foundations deposited. Not one of us wakes up one morning as an angel or a merman. Instead, we shift a little here, a little there. Perhaps the most we can hope for is the transformative power of beauty or love. Meanwhile, we mostly go on, accumulating and discarding what we can. Debris piles up. We ignore it or, given luck, patience and a trace of consciousness, we sculpt it into something useful, begin to understand that if every distinction we make between freak and human were tempered by uncertainty, then we might begin to change our lives. Faced with the winged and fishy, the buggy and scaled inside us all, we might find a way to be less monstrous.

The merman never spoke. Neither did the very old man with enormous wings, nor, as far as we know, did anything from outer space. Whatever the Cobra Mist radar was trying to hear remained out of earshot, obstructed by some mysterious noise. No blazing message, no commandment to alter our ways, no explosion that means we must revise our lives. The sky is lighter now, the drizzle stopped. I'm aware if I don't head back to the landing jetty soon, the warden will be out in his jeep looking for me. I don't want that, don't want the jeep with its fumes and him with his concern, nor do I wish yet to leave this shingle, which seems even larger now than a giant's Zen Garden and looks, in fact, stable, as if it's been here, like this, forever. But I know that's an illusion, that even as I walk here, it's graveling its slow way down the coast, inching southward with its litter of iron scraps, blocks of wood and remnants of war, its lore of merman and UFO's, top secret radar projects and trigger testing. By my left foot, the tiny white tendril of a sea pea twines down between the finer stones in search of a smidgen of nutrition. In the five hundred years since that early map, the nose that is Orford Ness has moved south a couple of miles, its tip now pointed a little more downward. If it were possible to film this drifting debris over hundreds of years and speed the action up, we'd see a nose held high begin to lower, as if the head it's attached to has grown sleepy, begun to nod off.

Excerpted from Walking the Wrack Line, by Barbara Hurd. Copyright (c) 2008 by Barbara Hurd. Reprinted with permission from The University of Georgia Press. All rights reserved.

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Barbara Hurd