Authors: Philip Craig
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To my children, Kimberlie and James, fourth generation Vineyarders whose island ancestors sailed from the wild Azores.
We were on the clam flats at the south end of Katama Bay. The tide was out, and the flats had again risen from the waters as they had since time immemorial. Beneath the mud and sand were blissful mollusks, leading peaceful clam lives, little suspecting that above them clam hunters were coming after them. Such is the innocence of Eden. The hunted sometimes never realize that they are the prey of the hunters. Instinct may make the deer wary of the lion, or the gopher wary of the hawk, but such ancient blood knowledge seems to have eluded the clam. Perhaps because he has no blood.
I suggested as much to Zee, who was on her knees beside me, rubber gloved, her basket at hand, as we dug in search of the innocent, delicious clams.
“You're weird,” said Zee. “Besides, clams may not have blood, but they do have all this oozy juice that probably amounts to the same thing. Their problem is that all they can do to escape is burrow deeper into the sand.”
“Just like lots of the rest of us,” I said. “I'm glad to learn that you're catching on to the secrets of the clamming trade. To capture these little guys and gals, you have to dig down to where they are and then grab them before they can catch the elevator to the next lower floor.”
I came up with a clam and dropped it in my bucket. We'd been on the flats since a half hour before the tide reached low, and our buckets were filling up. Zee was a fast study
and had quickly caught on to all I'd ever learned about clamming. And I'd been at it for years, too. It was a skill you were morally obliged to develop if you were going to live on Martha's Vineyard. The island was surrounded by salt water full of fish and indented by bays full of shellfish, and if you didn't learn to outfox the many sea creatures you were no true islander at all.
Here, now, on the Katama clam flats, our knees were black, our gloved hands were black, the mud beneath us was black. It was June, and already the summer folk were pouring down. Soon the clam flats would be emptied of their, treasure by hoards of hungry amateur clammers. So we were getting ours while the getting was easy. Later we would be obliged to seek more obscure clamming grounds. Behind our backs, Katama Bay reached north toward Edgartown. Sailboats carrying day sailors from the Edgartown docks, moved over the blue water. To our south, beyond the flats and beyond the far sand dunes where the June people were browning in the sun, stretched the Atlantic, going “all the way to the Azores,” as the local descendants of the Portuguese were inclined to say. Over us, the summer sky lifted out of the white haze to the south and curved pale blue over us and down again into the white haze of the north. The sun was hot on our backs.
“Look,” said Zee. “Isn't that John Skye's Jeep?”
It was indeed John Skye's Jeep. It had come east from the end of the paved road in Katama, over the flat sands inside of the dunes, and was now stopped a hundred yards away from us beside my own ancient Toyota Landcruiser. A hand waved. We waved back in the manner of those who, doubtful about who is waving at them but fearful of appearing stupid or unsociable if they don't wave back, wave back. The hand curved back inside the door of the Jeep, the door opened, and John Skyeâwho else?âstepped out. Other Jeep doors opened and two other people got out: an elderly woman and a man about my ageâearly thirties or so, still approaching his prime.
John Skye owned most of what had once been a Vineyard farm back in the days when Vineyarders, like many folk who lived along the edge of the sea, had combined farming with fishing as they tried to make a living. The farm was only a couple of miles from my own place. He was a professor from Weststock College. I'd met him during a bluefish blitz on Wasque Point when we'd been side by side hauling in the blues and having a very fine time. After the bluefish had gone, we'd shared coffee laced with rum and talked of this and that before going off to scale and clean our fish. We'd met again now and then and learned a bit about one anotherâmost importantly, to him, that I was a neighbor and lived on the island year round and was quite capable of closing down a house in the fall, looking after it during the winter, and opening it up again in the spring, and that I could haul, paint, and launch a catboat. He could use somebody to do all those things for him while he was busy being academic, and I could use the money he was willing to pay me to do them. Later we became almost friends and later still real friends. John was originally from out west but was now a permanent New Englander. He came to the island as soon as he could wind up his college duties in the spring and stayed until the last possible moment in the fall. He was tall and balding, about fifty years old, and taught things medieval.
And now he dug out clam buckets from the rear of his Jeep and came walking across the muddy clam flats toward us, his companions chatting cheerfully.
“I see you've come to raid our clam flat,” I said. “You shifty-eyed mainlanders are all alike. You wait until hardworking, honest, but starving natives finally discover the whereabouts of the elusive clam, then move in and rape the area.”
“The economic principle that made America great,” said Skye. “You understand it perfectly.” He peered into our clam baskets. “You've done some ruthless exploiting of your own, I see. Did you leave any for late arrivals?”
“Plenty. They're just a couple of inches deeper than you think they ought to be. We've been here about an hour. You know Zee Madieras.”
He did. They exchanged how-do-you-dos and Skye's eyebrows involuntarily arched, as normal men's did when looking at her. Zee was dark and sleek as a panther and single again. Even covered with clamming mud, she reminded me of summer wind. Her black hair had blue tones in it and I had seen it fall like a tropic night over her shoulders, though now it was bundled up under a kerchief. Her eyes could be as deep as eternity.
“Allow me to introduce my companions,” said Skye. “Both professors, I fear, but civilized nevertheless. Dr. Marjorie Summerharp and Dr. Ian McGregor. Marjorie, Ian, Mr. J. W. Jackson and Miss Zee Madieras.”
“Mrs. Zee Madieras,” said Zee, looking a bit too long, I thought, at Dr. Ian McGregor. “Zeolinda, actuallyÂ .Â .Â .” Her voice trailed away, and I too looked at Dr. McGregor. He was six feet tall or so, about 190, wearing shorts and a T-shirt that said something witty and revealed him to be very fit. He had an Apollonian head topped by dark curls. His eyes and smile were brilliant.
“Mrs. Madieras,” he said in a rich baritone. “Mr. Jackson.” He extended a hand and I pulled off a muddy glove and took it. There were two split knuckles on his hand. His grip was strong. So was mine. His brilliant eyes hardened for an instant. Then we parted and he was looking at Zee while I gazed up at Dr. Marjorie Summerharp.
Dr. Summerharp was in her seventies, lean and leathery, with short gray hair and one of those faces that keep you in line if its owner is your schoolteacher. A no-nonsense face, etched with countless lines, with a bony nose and wire-rimmed glasses. Her iron-gray eyes stared out upon the world with a look half of amusement and half of general disapproval. She extended a bony hand, which I took. Her grip was surprisingly firm.
“How do you do?” she said.
“Reasonably well. And yourself?”
A fleeting smile touched her thin lips. “Reasonably well, thank you.”
“These two have been my guests for a couple of weeks and are taking over our house while I take Mattie and the twins out to Colorado to introduce them to their western kinfolk. Marjorie and Ian needed a quiet place to finish up some important work, so I invited them down to the Blessed Isle. I was going to phone you, but now I don't have toâI'd appreciate it if you'll be their emergency number in case anything goes wrong. The water, electricity, anything like that. You know the place better than anybody else.”
Skye had a new family. He'd married a widow with twin teenage daughters and adored all three of his new women with ill-concealed affection. He was no doubt anxious to display them to the rest of his family, all of whom still lived in the high mountain country. I approved of his decision.
“Sure. Be glad to.”
“Fine. I'll leave your number by the phone.”
“We'll try not to disturb you, Mr. Jackson,” said Dr. Summerharp. “I can clean a drain or fix a leaky pipe or replace a fuse if I have to. In a pinch, I can rewire a fixture and unplug a sewer line, too.”
I looked up at her and felt my mouth turn up at one corner. “I'll bet you can, Doctor,” I said. “How are your clamming skills?”
“I was born on the Maine coast. I think I can find a clam if I'm looking for one.”
“Well, down here on the Vineyard they don't just jump up into your basket for you. You have to go after them with a shovel or a fork or a bathroom plunger on the end of a stick or with your hands. Since you aren't armed, all you have is your hands, so if you want some steamers you'd better get down here in the mud and start digging. You have gloves?”
She extracted some from a hind pocket of her rolled-up jeans. “I have. I'm a little creaky in the joints, but I can get down and I can get up again. When does the tide turn?”
An intelligent question. Not de rigueur for some academic types I've met. “It's just turned,” I said. “There's an hour and a half difference between the tides in here and those out yonder beyond the sand you drove in on. Everything here happens later than out there.”
She nodded and began an arthritic old lady's careful descent to her knees. “I've been on the island before and I've seen the maps and charts. The only way water can get in and out of here is through the gut between Edgartown and Chappaquiddick. It makes for a fast current in the gut and late tides inside.”
I was thus impressed twice in a single minute and was beginning to respect Dr. Marjorie Summerharp. “That's right. You'll have an hour or so of dry digging here before the water gets up to you. Plenty of time for an old pro Maine clammer to get her limit.”
“John Skye's limit, that is,” she said, grimacing then relaxing as she settled onto her heels. “We off-islanders have to pay a fortune for our shellfish permits, so today we're all using his.”
She knelt beside me and we both began to dig. John Skye aligned himself on my other side and got to work, too. Somewhere beyond my peripheral vision I heard Ian McGregor's voice mixing with Zee's. I listened in spite of myself and noted that he had a ready wit and a pleasing tongue and that after a while Zee laughed.