One early fall morning, Paul and I walked down to the beach to examine what looked like, from the small corner deck of my apartment, large pink slabs of flesh that had washed ashore during the night. This was over two decades ago when I lived right on the bay in Provincetown. My room, on the third level of a four-level house, was one hundred and fifty square feet. It was just enough for a tiny bathroom with an old sink, toilet, and shower stall, a single bed, which was separated from the galley kitchen by a half-wall, and my desk, which faced the large picture window fronting the sea.
As we approached the fleshy chunks, we spoke of our greatest fear and also our darkest hope: would we find a body? Why did we want to? As a writer and a sculptor, perhaps we let our imaginations run wild like grown-up children in a real-world haunted house.
Years later when my husband and I would first walk in the woods near our home in Vermont, we would pause and squint toward the mid-distance.
“What do you think that is?” Paul would say.
“What what is?”
“That.” He pointed toward a dark, bulky form lying on a bed of moldering leaves and pine needles. Our hearts pricked with fear and anticipation. Of course, we always hoped to spot bears too, and sometimes we have. We have seen one, for instance, right out in the open squatting and defecating on a strip of grass alongside the two-lane highway we take to the farm stand or the town’s recycling bins.
“Oh,” I said, squinting more. “It’s just an old tree stump.”
“Are you sure?” Paul said.
“Yes,” I insisted. “See? It’s just really black because of the recent rain. And it’s not moving.”
The fleshy chunks on the beach were motionless, and our solemn walk down the steps to the narrow stretch of sand—the tide was up—was punctuated by the familiar high-pitched, undulating “Wheeeee, wheeeee, wheeeeee” from MacMillan Pier just to the west. I had heard this sound on many mornings, not knowing what it was. More than once it occurred to me the siren song of the wharf might be a chorus of locals, living and dead, sounding a warning, a shrill secret message. In this small, eccentric town, a well-established gay and lesbian community and century-old artists’ colony, Portuguese fishermen—now greatly diminished in numbers—and their families lived alongside artists and writers, second- and third-home owners, tourists, shopkeepers, carpenters, plumbers and postal workers. The notion about this complicated and beautiful historic village, described repeatedly like a curling arm jutting out into the Atlantic, is that it is welcoming and friendly and everyone happily mingles. But although not an island, it is a long sixty-mile drive southwest on Route 6 and across one of two bridges spanning a canal to the mainland; looking eastward from this the narrow spit, the next bit of land across the far stretch of the Atlantic is Portugal. Friendship, true companionable friendship, is hard-won, and locals, or “townies,” are often crusty and suspicious of “washashores.” In such a transient place, where so many people and things come and go—and in the off-season after the last ferry from Boston has stopped shuttling across the bay, the last of the tail lights of tourists’ cars fades down Route 6 and disappear over the bridge, and a grey, shawl of winter settles over everything—it’s unwise to easily attach oneself to anyone or anything.
Nothing in a seaside community stays the same. People, tourists and homeowners, come and go; the tide washes up the debris: plastic fish crates, seaweed, waterlogged bits of wood, the flat, alien form of a sunfish. Everyone knows a hurricane might come, a boat might sink in an unexpected storm at sea, whales or turtles will wash ashore, poisoned by something unseen in the water or confused by an unusually warm or cold current, as if their inner compasses crazily spin around without magnetic north until they grow tired and stop swimming altogether.
“It’s a winch,” Paul said, explaining the sound. Paul had lived in Provincetown for over two decades and had been explaining a lot of things to me.
“What winch? Where?”
“Oh, from one of those fishing boats at the end of the wharf.” He pointed toward the pier to our right and the few boats that had been out all night and had come in that morning. “It must need oiling,” he said. “It hauls the crates of fish up and out of the hold onto the wharf.”
I thought of the seeping, packed fish crates, stacked in the trucks, whose dripping, watery trails led along the pier, across Front Street, as Commercial Street was once known, down Winslow, and eastward along Bradford toward the canal. “You know Provincetown is changing,” Paul once remarked, “when a letter to the editor in the local paper complains about the smell of the fish trucks.”
“Yes,” I said, “and few artists or writers can afford to live here.” We would move away ourselves eight years later, but we would come back every summer to visit, to swim, to walk the kinetic, balmy streets on a Friday night. In those moments the town is like the sheath of luminescent planktons that once, when two friends and I had gone skinny-dipping at Herring Cove, had sparkled and glowed on our naked bodies.
“Provincetown ain’t what it used to be.” Paul and I are fond of this quote from writer and social activist Mary Heaton Vorse, who in the late 1930s, on her arrival in Provincetown, overheard one railroad worker saying this to another. The train, which carried passengers up and down the Cape from Boston for over eight decades, stopped running in 1959. Now the railroad bed, running parallel to Route 6, is a sandy walking path, known mostly to locals, tucked inside a thin forest and hidden from the road.
Paul and I stood on the beach looking down on the pink flesh, not touching it. It was one of those days that began with a moist fog settling over everything, a heavy misty cover, obscuring only but the first twenty or so feet of water. Then, as locals always predicted, it “burned off,” had gotten considerably warmer and bright; we shielded our eyes from the sparkling prisms of light on the water and squinted at the blue, cloudless sky above a relentlessly hopeful horizon.
“Look how neat those cuts are,” Paul said, referring to the two-inch-thick sides of the rectangular chunk of flesh, about ten inches long and ten inches wide. We spotted another one, a little way down the beach.
“Is this some kind of bait?” I said. “But for what possible fish?”
“It looks like it was cut with a sharp knife,” Paul said. “Like a butcher or flensing knife--what they used to cut through whale blubber.”
“Well, no one here is whaling now. . . It sort of reminds me of pig flesh,” I said. “Someone had a pig roast at Wood End and some chunks floated over?”
“It may be left over from a necropsy of a whale somewhere.” He told me although tides and currents were considered before whale parts where deposited at sea, sometimes things didn’t go as planned.
In my thirteen years living on Cape Cod, I would see the spectacular spouts and breaching of whales from shore or a whale watch boat, but I would never see a dead whale. But Paul had seen the bright red hole where a plug of blubber had been removed from a humpback and the large squares of whale fat removed for examination in a lab in Woods Hole or at the New England Aquarium. The sight and smell of a rotting whale over forty feet long and nearly 80,000 pounds, he assured me, is not easily forgotten.
“Ah, that distinct odor of death,” we recently joked as we entered our 1880s Vermont home, “but such a charming house!” We could smell, but not see, a dead animal, perhaps a mouse, a squirrel, or some other creature that had died within the walls. Twice we have smelled this odor, and both times it took several weeks for it to go away. I have often wished for x-ray vision to see through our walls to the skeletons of mice, squirrels, voles, and other creatures trapped inside like our own fossil museum.
When we did actually find a body it was that of our neighbor across the street in our Vermont village. She had been dead for seven to ten days according to the medical examiner, and while she had cancer, her alcoholism (which she had managed to hide from us and most everyone else) had apparently been the primary culprit. Her dog, a shepherd mix, was found next to her, barely alive, dehydrated and thirty pounds underweight.
Her decomposing body lay on the couch in the cluttered basement room that had become her living space in the rambling home, which had begun decaying around her since she had retired early, lost her way, her money, and the ability to keep up with things. The furnace didn’t work, the water didn’t run, the dark shingles on the roof were tinged green with moss. The room was dark, but when one of the state troopers, who had shown up with his partner forty-five minutes after the EMTs, shined his flashlight around the dingy room, the dazed dog’s eyes glimmered dully but he did not move and our neighbor’s body was seen, fully clothed, turned toward the crease of the couch. Some liquid, watery yellow and red, had begun to ooze from her body and leave a large, dark stain on the couch. I had been called in to try and encourage the dog to get off the couch to leave his owner with whom he clearly was resigned to die. I did not remember his name, for I had not heard it in a couple years. A sickly sweet smell entered my nostrils and settled in my nasal cavity.
Later that day I stood in our bedroom on the second floor looking across the street to our neighbor’s battered, lonely house and the curve of the river that wound around the back of it and flowed under the bridge just beyond. The sickly sweet smell lingered in my sinuses. I wanted to remember it; it was sacred. I thought of the burning ghats along the Ganges in India where an average of eighty bodies are burned all day, every day, and of the sky burials of adherents to Vajrayana Buddhism, when a deceased body is chopped up by the rogyapas (body-breakers) and left for vultures to devour. The belief is the soul is gone from the body and the lives of smaller rodents and other animals are spared.
There are the spared rodents of Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia, and those that have decayed inside the walls of our house. In the Vermont countryside as we tried and failed to save a fawn attacked by fisher cats, or to revive one of our chickens, maimed by a raccoon, by caring for it in a basket inside our home, everyday mortalities remind us of life. We remember too the lessons learned by the little deaths of a beachside community shaped by its shifting cultural, economic, and historic moods and tides, like the distinct cast of the moon on the sea in each season of each year, decade, and century.
Recently, we drove home from a dinner celebrating our wedding anniversary along quiet, dark roads on a clear, crisp evening, with radiant stars shimmering through the winter’s fishnet sky, and spotted what we thought was a dead dog. It turned out to be a young coyote, struck by a car. We got out and silently carried it to the edge of a snowy field alongside the road. A tender breeze touched the coyote’s body, and its lush white and brown fur fluttered in the moonlight.