Mottled sea stars were common, but I'd examined thousands of stars and had never seen this same color or pose. I picked it up. Its underside was as pale as a black man's palm, and its two bottom legs appeared fused. I wondered how it moved well enough to hunt, but it looked healthy, its hundreds of tiny suction-cup feet apparently fully operable. I stuck it in a sack with some water and slipped it into my backpack. I then waded up to my calves toward the mid-sized oyster farm belonging to Judge Stegner.
That was my alibi if I was caught out there, that I was tending the judge's oysters. He paid me twenty dollars a month to help maintain them, though not at night, of course. Still, it was nice to have an answer if someone asked what I was doing out there at that hour. I had the words Judge Stegner on my side, and I knew how everyone felt about him. My father tucked his shirt in whenever he came around. And when the judge spoke in his deep, easy rumble, nobody interrupted.
Near the oyster farm something happened that never failed to spook me in the dark. I saw a few dozen shore crabs scrambling near the rectangular, foot-high mesh fence around the judge's oyster beds. Crabs amused me in small crowds. It's when they clustered at night that they unhinged me, especially when they were in water where they moved twice as fast as on land. It was obvious there were more crabs--and bigger crabs--than usual, so I tried not to expand my range of vision too fast. It was no use. I saw hundreds, maybe thousands, assembling like tank battalions. I stepped back and felt their shells crunch beneath my feet and the wind pop out of me. Once I steadied, I flashed my headlamp on the oyster fence that three red rock crabs were aggressively scaling. It looked like a jail break with the biggest ringleaders leading the escape. I suddenly heard their clicking pinchers clasping holds in the fence, jimmying their armored bodies higher. How had I missed that sound? The judge's oysters were under siege, but I couldn't bring myself to interfere. It felt like none of my business.
I picked my steps, knowing if I slipped and tumbled I'd feel them skittering around me as cool water filled my boots. I rounded the oyster beds, to the far side, relieved to find it relatively crab free. It was low tide by then, and I saw the water hesitating at its apex, neither leaving nor returning, patiently waiting for the gravitational gears to shift. Dozens of anxious clams started squirting in unison like they did whenever vibrating grains of sand warned them predators were approaching. I stopped and waited with them, to actually see the moment when the tide started returning with its invisible buffet of plankton for the clams, oysters, mussels and other filter feeders. It was right then, ankle deep in the Sound, feet numbing, eyes relaxed, that I saw the nudibranch.
In all my time on the flats I'd never seen one before.I 'd read about them, sure.I'd handled them at aquariums but never in the wild, and I'd never even seen a photo of one this stunning. It was just three inches long but with dozens of fluorescent, orange-tipped hornlike plumes jutting from the back of its see-through body that appeared to be lit from within.
Nudibranchs are often called the butterflies of the sea, but even that understates their dazzle. Almost everything else in the northern Pacific is dressed to blend with pale surroundings. Nudibranchs don't bother, in part because they taste so lousy they don't need camouflage to survive. But also, I decided right then, because their beauty is startling it earns them a free pass, the everyday life brakes for peacocks, parade floats and supermodels.
I bagged that sea slug--it weighed nothing--and set it in my backpack next to the Jesus star. Then I gave the crabs a wide berth, found the moon snail, poked him in the belly until he contracted, bagged him and paddled south toward home beneath the almost- full moon.
From The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch, pages 1-8. Copyright 2005 by Jim Lynch. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address Bloomsbury Publishing,175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.
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