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  • It was a warm September afternoon at the beginning of the long autumn of 1988. It marked the end of a summer of heartache that was just getting underway and would follow me through the fall and beyond. The relationship that was had sputtered and died in June. I had fled Boston for the summer promises of Woods Hole and the need for the sanctuary that this place had always been for me. And for a short time it was. Peace had come and with it opportunity but it was too soon and one way or another the whole thing flipped around and inside out and I was left with the knot of grief down there somewhere deep that not even a 1988 Pie-in-the-Sky cheese pouch can assuage. So I rode. My bike was my solace and silence sat over my shoulders watching me while I pedaled. At night I would listen to the crickets as I lay awake thinking those irrepressible thoughts that only come to the rejected between the hours of midnight and dawn. Through August the cricket numbers waxed as love songs filled the still night air and I made them mine and imagined her out there swimming in the luminous waters of the dark harbor, laughing and not seeing me here.

    That morning I drank my coffee knowing that in another hour or so my stomach would be back in its usual twisted knot and I marvelled at my brother quietly reading the newspaper. How, I thought, could the world be so calm while I was feeling such a wreak. To be him, I thought. To be him.

    I took my bike along the coastal road. The sun was there in all its yellow September clarity and the Sound was calm and brilliant and flat. It was quiet and there were no cars. A single sailboat sat sullen and limp offshore and big orange monarch butterflies were everywhere, gliding and flapping and hanging off the sides of big drooping goldenrods. They were tanking up, following the sun south and leaving the place to me. The thought of isolating here through the winter hadn't hit me yet but the idea of going back to the city...Didn't think I was up for that yet. I continued on. I rode the marathoners track through Falmouth. I stopped for lunch in spite of no appetite and made myself eat an egg salad sandwich and a pint of whole milk. I tried to congratulate myself on my intact self-preservation instinct but it didn't feel so great anyway and soon I was back on my bike.

    I found myself in Woods Hole and was heading out of town on the bike path. It's a road at that point and follows the back end of Little Harbor. At the far end it draws close to the road and I was looking over the short fence and beach rose brush into the water. It was still and green and clear and suddenly I thought I saw something big swimming along just a few feet off the shore. I stopped my bike and was about to back up when I noticed further up the beach there was another shape moving along the shore and so close to the surface that the water humped up and made a v-shaped riffle ahead of it.

    They were bluefish. Big bluefish, maybe 12 pounds or more. What were they doing here so close to the shore? They don't do that! I stopped my bike and set it on the side of the path, climbed over the fence and stood atop the black granite riprap that slopes down and enters the water,forming a gray rocky beach of sorts. There they were. Two, no, three big bluefish patrolling slowly along the 100 feet or so of beachfront direct ahead of me. They were only about five feet from shore in perhaps two or three feet of water. The water was so clear every detail seemed sharp and distinct. They moved leisurely and their mouths gaped open and closed while their heads swung back and forth in rhythm with their waving tail. I watched one reach a distance of 60 feet or so up the coast then swing around and head back toward me. I was baffled. Usually these big blues are out in the sound being chased by fishermen and gulls as they in turn harrassed schools of baitfish. You can catch little snappers, baby bluefish, this close sometimes but these were full-sized eating machines.

    I decided to see how close I could get to them. I was wearing shorts so I took off my shoes and slowly stepped down the waters edge. There was a thick layer of seaweed in the water that formed a dense floating mat that extend about two feet into the sea. I stepped in slowly. The water was warm and the surrounding weed hid my white feet from the swimmers further out. I waited. Within thirty seconds one of the big blues swam past, perhaps five feet from me. Another cruised by a moment later. What could they be doing, I wondered.

    Suddenly I felt a movement by my leg. Looking down, I saw the back of a silvery fish, about a foot long, slowly pushing past my foot toward the shore. It moved very slowly, no thrashing and I reached down and was actually able to pick it up. It was a menhaden, the herring-relative that forms big schools in the fall and are a favorite food of bluefish. What was it doing here. I held it for a moment and then tossed it away, a couple of feet clear of the weed line, into the clear water that a few moments ago saw a big bluefish cruise by. The fish hit the water with a slap.

    Two things happened. First, no sooner had the menhaden hit the water that it had doubled back and dove directly into the very weeds I thought I had extricated it from. It went so fast it collided with my foot again. At nearly the same time the fish hit the water, a set of rapid v-shaped wedges of water darted toward me along the beach from both directions, left and right. They materialized into two of the big blues headed nearly on a collision course. They vered apart just in front of me, circled quickly back and then each headed back along the shore, just along the sharply defined edge off floating weed in which I stood. I slowly shuffled my feet and look around. It took me a moment to realize that I was seeing movement in the weed that did not follow the light up and down motion on the nearly imperceptible rise and fall of the sea. There were things living in there. I parted the weeds with my hands and when I did there was a big menhaden that immediately darted back into the mat. There was another. Looking along the coast I suddenly could see them everywhere. A shiny back barely moving above the waterline. A bright tail wedged between two rocks. They moved stealthily, the piscine equivalent of tiptoe-ing. Many didn't move at all. I looked down at one that was pressed under a flat rock at an odd angle, it's gills pumping, its body immobile.

    It was then that I realized what I had stumbled upon. These fish, these menhaden, were part of a school that had been driven down Little Harbor by a pack of attacking blues. They had fled the marauders and discovered the trap; the harbor ended and there was no place to flee but a last ditch chance to dive into the wrack line at the edge of the water and sit quietly, while the hunters searched for them, cruising back and forth, waiting for them to break rank and run for it. What struck me was that I dumb latecomer, the only one who didn't know what this was about. Each fish around me knew exactly what was the stakes were. The menhaden knew the blues were out there and the bluefish knew the menhaden were in here.

    Without thinking it through all too clearly, I reached down and picked up one of the fish seeking refuge by my feet and in a quick motion flipped it out into the open water, this time a bit further out than the last one. Again, the slap as the fish hit the water and again the mad dash directly back toward me. This time, however, a big bluefish was approaching from my left. The menhaden made a rapid turnaround and headed for the open sea. The fish to my left followed, accelerating like some smooth lean silver rocket. Another wake vectored in from my right. The first bluefish caught up with the fleeing menhaden about fifteen feet in front of me in the clear deep water. They intersected momentarily and then the bluefish was past. The manhaden arced up and to the right, its body flapping furiously but ineffectively as a perfect red crescent was all that was left of the back third of its body. Blood trailed off like some WWII warplane but before I could take it in the second bluefish hit and it was gone. A rain of silver scales glittered toward the bottom and then the bluefish turned back and continued their patrol.

    A moment later there was a commotion to my left. A bluefish had charged into the wrackline about 50 feet up the beach. There was a furious explosion of water and suddenly silvery menhaden were flipping through the air and landing among the rocks on dry land! They would leap right out of the water to escape the teeth of their hunters. I ran over and picked them up and this time I put them back into the weeds. I was all for excitement but they had to have a sporting chance. This was a slaughter.

    And so it went while I stayed and watched. Every few minutes, a menhaden, tired of the waiting game, would make its way to the edge of the wrackline, pause for the right moment, and then make a run for the harbor mouth. The waiting blues were uncanny. They knew the moment the fish was clear and they came out of nowhere and the ending was always the same glittering cascade of silver scales and then the return to the hunt. Another bluefish showed up and then soon there were five. Once, I stood at the edge and slapped the water like a fish. the bluefish rushed toward me so fast and aggressively that I jumped back and out of the water. It was a mean business going on that afternoon and all the while cyclists rolled by and the monarchs glided past to the south.

    That evening I got home and put my bike away in the basement. I packed my bag and my (first) laptop into the car and drove to Boston. Paul let me stay at his place until I could find my own place in the South End. My stomach still ached and I thought about her there in the city. I dreaded seeing her but I was there to stay.
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